February 27, 2012
Photo courtesy of Yellowstone National Park.
Less than a year after being pulled off the Endangered Species Act (ESA), gray wolves (Canis lupus) in the western U.S. are facing an onslaught of hunting. The hunting season for wolves has just closed in Montana with 160 individuals killed, around 75 percent of 220-wolf kill quota for the state. In neighboring Idaho, where 318 wolves have been killed so far by hunters and trappers, the season extends until June. In other states—Oregon, Washington, California, and Utah—wolf hunting is not currently allowed, and the species is still under federal protection in Wyoming.
In Idaho fourteen wolves were also killed by the government using helicopters in a bid to prop up elk herds. Legislators in the state are also mulling a recent proposal to allow aerial hunting and the use of live bait to kill wolves that have harassed livestock or pets. Republican and sheep rancher Jeff Siddoway, who introduced the legislation, said he would have no problem using his dog as live bait.
Wolves are hugely controversial in the region: ranchers point to them as a cause for livestock mortalities, while hunters blame them for a decline in elk. Biologists, however, say the elk decline may be due to a combination of drought, hunting by people, and the return of wolves. By nature wolves prey on young, old, and weak animals, and likely have little overall impact on a healthy herd.
In fact, a recent study study in Montana's Bitterroot Mountains found that wolves were not a primary driver behind elk mortalities. Examining 36 elk calf kills, the study determined that mountain lions were responsible for thirteen (36 percent), black bears killed four (11 percent), wolves also killed four (11 percent), five died of natural causes (13 percent), and ten mortalities were due to unknown causes (27 percent).
However, as top predators, wolves have a big impact on elk and other prey's behavior, which results in massive implications for the health of an ecosystem. Long-term studies in Yellowstone National Park have recorded notable changes since the return of wolves after a 70-year absence. The findings have shown that wolves are key to a healthy, diverse ecosystem.
Research has found that by keeping elk on the run and in hiding, wolves protect plants and trees that had long been over-browsed, saving some species from local extinction. The presence of wolves allowed trees to grow up along rivers for the first time in decades in Yellostone, protecting against erosion and cooling rivers through shade. In turn, the riverside trees allowed for the return of beavers, which had nearly vanished from Yellowstone. Through dam-building beavers created new habitat for fish. With more trees and shrub cover, songbird populations rose. Scavengers from bear to ravens were aided by wolf-kills. In all, biodiversity and wildlife abundance blossomed.
Less than 2,000 wolves are currently found in seven states of the western U.S., the bulk of them in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. California has only one. By contrast 3,000 wolves are found in northern Minnesota alone.