Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Of Wolves and Wolf Hunting Season: It's True, and It's Tragic

 Louisa Willcox
October 4, 2011

Yes, the wolf hunting season has begun in Montana and Idaho—a tragic outcome that we at NRDC worked so hard to forestall.  We and our dedicated Activists and Members threw our all into a campaign over the past six years to ensure the recovery of wolves.  With roughly 1,650 wolves in the region based on the last official count, we were approaching a sustainable recovery—at least 2,000 wolves in connected ecosystems—before wolves suffered a bitter defeat when Congress stripped them of federal protections last spring.
But that does not mean that the battle is “over.”  When it comes to protecting large carnivores, the battle is never over.  It is won and lost, animal by animal, day by day, season by season, community by community.  We suffered a setback, yes, but there are many chapters in the wolf recovery story that have yet to be written.

There is hope in this view because it means that we get a second chance to redefine the playing field for carnivores and people.  Wolves are here to stay in the Northern Rockies—even their most serious opponents agree to that fact.  So it’s up to us to look again at our complex relationship with this important top carnivore.

First, it is essential for us to learn from our recent experience and apply those lessons to ensure that the removal of species from federal ESA protections is done appropriately. Congress is not equipped to deal with this issue—something that was clear when the Endangered Species Act was passed, since one of the main points of the law is to take the politics out of these decisions. The decisions should be left in the hands of agencies with scientific expertise and many years of experience in recovery of endangered species, not the whims of politicians under fire from special interests.

Second, NRDC and others are redoubling efforts to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts, the single biggest cause of wolf mortalities to date.  Interestingly, the ranchers that I’ve been talking to this summer are not convinced that the hunt is going to help reduce wolf-livestock conflicts because of where wolf hunters are likely to go—more in the backcountry than the places where livestock are grazed at this time of year—and the reality that the indiscriminate hunting of wolves can disrupt the social structure of wolf packs and may actually lead to more conflicts.  Many livestock operators I’ve spoken with feel that there is more that we can do collaboratively to reduce wolf conflicts using the many tools that are now available—guard dogs, better husbandry practices, fladry (i.e., flagging strung along electrified fence-lines).

Third, we at NRDC are expanding our work on wolf protection efforts in the Pacific Northwest, where ample habitat for wolves still remains and where wolves are finding new homes.  There is a great opportunity here to bolster wolf recovery efforts in the lower-48 states, and expand upon what we’ve been able to accomplish so far in the Northern Rockies.

We also plan to submit comments and generate comments from our wonderful Members and Activists when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initiates a process to approve another weak Wyoming wolf plan.  Wyoming is important because it has the lionshare of the wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  This process should start in the next month or so.  It appears that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has largely reversed its former position that it was opposed to the Wyoming wolf plan, and now seems poised to designate most of the state as a “free-fire” wolf killing zone.  We will be taking a close look at that plan in yet another attempt to keep Wyoming from getting away with murder on wolves in most of the state.

We’ve also been working on ways to support efforts to raise sustainable cattle, which, if successful, would mean that ranchers would protect wolves and other carnivores as the normal part of their operations, while at the same time minimizing the use of antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals, and maximizing the protections of watersheds, soils, grasslands and biodiversity.

So while it is easy to feel despair in the short-term as the wolf hunting seasons begin—and we are already grieving for the roughly three dozen wolves that have been killed so far—there are more hopeful prospects in the longer term.  The challenge is to figure out how to work together in a problem-oriented way to reduce wolf conflicts and increase the chance that we and wolves can coexist.

While the fall cools and the flanks of the mountains here turn yellow and red, we are keeping our sights on Montana and Idaho as the hunts get underway (and it should be noted here that Montana’s doing a much better job when it comes to wolves than Idaho).  If we can’t postpone the hunt, at least we can bear witness, honor the dead, and let politicians know how we feel—which is disturbed and dismayed that the states are willing to reverse the enormous progress made to date for wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies.
At NRDC, we are in this fight for the long haul.  We, like wolves, are not going away, and we will continue to defend their important role in maintaining the health of this magnificent ecosystem.