NOV. 2, 2014
By Clyde Haberman
Few mammals are as unloved as the wolf. Not that the feeling is universal. Some North American Indian tribes traditionally honored the predator as a worthy fellow hunter. Other societies have shown comparable reverence. How can anyone bear a grudge against the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus, mythological founders of Rome? Without her, would we have had all that glorious architecture, those inspiring Michelangelo frescoes, Sophia Loren? Still, in popular culture and many a metaphor this animal is far from adored. There it is at the door in hard times, disguising itself in sheep’s clothing, tormenting the likes of Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs.
But should it be denied the right to live? Of course not, federal wildlife officials say. They pride themselves on having brought wolves — specifically, gray wolves — back from the brink of oblivion in the northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, where kill-them-all attitudes once prevailed. By the first decades of the 20th century, the gray wolf was close to being wiped out. Then along came the federal Endangered Species Act, in 1973. Wolves were among the first species to fall under its protection.
By itself, the law did not revive moribund populations. That started to happen in the mid-1990s, when the United States Fish and Wildlife Service brought some wolves down from Canada and set them free to roam Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and, soon enough, neighboring Idaho and Montana. As chronicled by Retro Report, a weekly series exploring major news stories from the past and their lasting impact, federal officials regard their restoration effort as a spectacular success story. They had set a target of 300 interbreeding wolves for that region. There are now believed to be more than 1,600.
That number is high enough for officialdom to ponder whether the gray wolf, already no longer covered by the Endangered Species Act in several Western states, should lose its protective shield everywhere else. Considering that more than 2,200 species of animals and plants are formally deemed endangered or threatened — with a mere two dozen or so ever having been dropped from the list over the decades — such an action would surely send eyebrows soaring. More than the fate of the wolf is on the line. Federal-state relations are also at stake, especially out West, where admiration for Washington and its edicts tends to run thin.
As with many issues, this one has various factions at odds, each claiming to carry the banner of equity.
Let’s start with ranchers and hunters, notably those in Montana and Idaho. By the early 2000s, they were chafing at the protections accorded wolves. Even though, over all, their livestock herds held fairly steady, ranchers in some locations were badly hurt as the wolf packs multiplied. One man, for example, awoke to find that 120 of his sheep had been killed overnight. Some who raised cattle fretted about calves that disappeared or injured themselves trying to escape the predators. Resentment grew, as captured in a Montana rancher’s comment reported in 2011 in High Country News, which writes about land use and natural resources in the West.
“We’re not always sure why we should go through all this, with losing calves and staying up all night,” the rancher, Terri Tew, said, “just so somebody from back East can come out here for a week and listen to a wolf howl.”
Hunters of elk had concerns of their own. For many of them, the elk were not targets for sport but were, rather, essential sources of meat. With each adult wolf capable of eating as many 35 elk a year, hunters believed they had reason to worry about what would be left for them.
Thus, around 2002, a campaign began to take gray wolves off the federal endangered list and hand regulation of them to state wildlife officials, who would be expected to authorize a certain level of killing.
Not surprisingly, environmental groups fought back, filing repeated lawsuits to keep the “delisting” efforts in check. While not monolithic in their views, these organizations were consistently of a mind that the wolf had been placed on the preservation list for a reason, namely that if ranchers and hunters were left to their own devices, the animal could again face annihilation. Moreover, some environmentalists said, the original target of 300 wolves capable of interbreeding across state lines was a minimum for what was needed, not a figure ensuring a healthy population.
For Suzanne Stone, an Idaho representative of the group Defenders of Wildlife, the cause was nothing less than a cry for justice. Wolves, Ms. Stone told a Retro Report interviewer, “belonged here just as much as the bison and the native people.”
“And they were persecuted to the point of eradication here,” she went on, “and not because they posed significant threats but just because people hated them, and just could kill them.”
Mary Ellen Hannibal, who writes on science and culture, has cautioned against underestimating wolves’ role in maintaining ecological balance. In a 2012 opinion article for The New York Times, Ms. Hannibal wrote, “It turns out that, far from being freeloaders on the top of the food chain, wolves have a powerful effect on the well-being of the ecosystems around them — from the survival of trees and riverbank vegetation to, perhaps surprisingly, the health of the populations of their prey.”
With battle lines sharply drawn, any vestige of good will between the opposing camps faded.
Inevitably, politicians stepped in. Siding with the ranchers and hunters — a.k. a. voters — Western members of Congress strategically attached a rider to a 2011 budget bill that removed gray wolves from the endangered list in five states: Montana, Idaho and parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah. Regulatory powers were given to the state authorities. It was the first time that Congress had dislodged an animal from the endangered roster instead of leaving such a decision to science-based agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service.
President Obama went along with it, signing the bill into law. (Protections continued, however, for gray wolves in Wyoming and for Mexican wolves in the American Southwest. In late September, a federal judge in Washington ruled that Wyoming should be covered by the 1973 act because it had yet to provide adequate safeguards for its wolf population.)
Lawmakers from Idaho and Montana defended the congressional maneuver, saying the wolves were back in numbers well beyond original projections. But environmentalists saw a potentially dangerous precedent, one that set the stage for future political intervention whenever protection of a particular species became inconvenient for certain people. Their apprehensions were hardly allayed when a California congressman tried in 2011 to yank an insect, the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly, off the endangered list. It was in the way of development projects that he favored. His attempt failed, but environmentalist fears of a slippery slope endure.
As the situation stands today, hunters in Montana and Idaho have license to kill wolves by the dozens. There are limitations. Populations of the animals may not dip below fixed levels. But where wolf packs used to pounce for food as they wished, worry-free, they now risk catching a bullet. They are learning what humans have known for a long time: There is no such thing as a free lunch.