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The War Against Wolves

Published 12/15/03
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 34 Number 4, Winter 2003

This past April Fools’ Day, animal advocates wondered if the joke was on them.

That's because on April 1, 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a rule lowering the protected status of gray wolves under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Despite the fact that wolves, once systematically extirpated, have yet to recover in most of their historic range, this reclassification is likely just the first step in the eventual elimination of all federal protections for gray wolves in the lower 48 states. Once de-listed, the species’ fate would lie in the hands of individual states.

The FWS is currently reviewing draft wolf management plans in several states, including Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. The federal agency must approve these plans before transferring authority for wolf management to the states.

Unfortunately, all of these plans allow sport hunting and trapping of wolves and favor lethal control of “problem” wolves rather than non-lethal preventive measures — resurrecting the very threats that pushed the species to the brink of extinction.

Even more ominously, the state plans are non-binding and could be altered after federal protections are lifted. Therefore, state legislatures openly hostile to wolves, such as those in Idaho, Minnesota, and Wyoming, could further weaken already inadequate plans. Nothing would stop them from declaring an open season on wolves.

The Sorry State of the States

As of press time, six states had created management plans for the gray wolf. Although these plans differ in their strategies and their degree of commitment to long-term wolf survival, they all permit — or even promote — killing of wolves. Here is a brief review of these deadly plans:

IDAHO: Idaho’s hostile wolf management plan depicts wolves as adversaries and focuses on controlling wolf numbers to protect “big game” populations for public recreation (i.e., hunting). Even the state’s educational efforts emphasize the predatory nature of and damage caused by the wolf.

The plan makes clear that Idaho’s official position is that the federal government should remove wolves from the state. It fails to institute any limit on lethal control of depredating wolves. That means that no matter how few wolves live in Idaho, the state’s Fish and Game Department will continue to kill “problem” wolves (and to merit “problem” status, a wolf need only be seen by a rancher). Whether on federal, state, or private lands, ranchers are granted the right to kill wolves to “protect their person and property.”

Further, that state maintains that it is under no obligation to manage wolves at all if the Idaho Congressional delegation does not secure funding to cover the costs of the plan.

MICHIGAN: The re-colonization of wolves in Michigan (which occurred when members of Minnesota’s remnant population moved into the state via Wisconsin) was made possible only by the species’ ESA status and by numerous court actions that kept federal protections in place.

Given the small number of wolves in Michigan, the low frequency of wolf depredations of livestock, and the precarious future of continued re-colonization, API has grave concerns about Michigan’s management plan.

Wolf advocates fear that removing federal protections for wolves in Michigan would allow for a return to hunting of wolves and lethal control of the species even if the wolf remains listed as a threatened species under state law. Such a measure will undoubtedly put the survival of the state’s wolves in jeopardy.

Minnesota’s aggressive wolf management plan, which would employ excessive lethal control of wolves (see below), could also dramatically limit the influx of wolves into Michigan.

MINNESOTA: In 2000, Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura signed into law the state’s wolf management plan, which will go into effect once federal de-listing occurs.

Karlyn Berg, wolf consultant for the Humane Society of the United States, told the Duluth News Tribune that the Minnesota plan “advocates assault and vengeance ... It allows indiscriminate and unrestrained shooting of wolves on sight, excessive trapping, increased government predator control and even contract bounty hunters.”

Minnesota intends to give landowners broad discretion to kill wolves,
even if the animals pose no threat to person or property.

MONTANA: Montana’s draft management plan for gray wolves would throw open the door to sport hunting, trapping, and lethal control.

Specifically, Montana’s plan allows persecution of wolves by reclassifying them as a “species in need of management,” “big game,” or “furbearer.” This reclassification would eventually permit sport hunting and trapping of wolves; place emphasis on lethal control of wolves to reduce livestock, elk, and deer depredation; set an artificial cap on wolf populations; grant broad discretion to agencies and private citizens, many of whom are hostile to wolf recovery, to manage livestock-wolf conflicts; and fail to protect habitat corridors vital to movement between wolf subpopulations.

WISCONSIN: In anticipation of federal action to remove Great Lakes-area wolves from the endangered species list, Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board began the process of reducing state protection for wolves. The plan proposes reclassifying the wolf from “threatened” to “protected wild animal” under state statues.

If this plan advances, wolves could be off the state’s endangered species list altogether by early 2004, making it legal to trap or shoot “problem” wolves. Wisconsin’s plan would rely excessively on lethal control measures, including removal of an entire pack if depredation occurs, and the granting of permits to landowners to kill wolves. The plan would also allow sport hunting once the wolf population reached 350 individual wolves.

Unfortunately, state officials contend that it is not premature to roll back protections, even though the state’s wolf population growth nearly stalled during the past year, increasing by less than 5 percent.

WYOMING: In its management plan, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department essentially declares war on wolves.

The agency proposes to significantly undermine wolf restoration efforts by allowing excessive implementation of lethal control methods to address human-caused conflicts, virtually ignoring wolf habitat requirements, and permitting sport hunting and trapping.

Specifically, the plan would classify the gray wolf as a “trophy game animal” in some parts of Wyoming and a “predatory animal” elsewhere. Classifying the wolf as a predator would permit unregulated hunting, trapping, and poisoning. The trophy game classification merely regulates the number of wolves killed through sport hunting. Under the “predatory” designation, trapping of wolves with the use of leghold traps and snares would be allowed.

The proposed plan also leaves open the possibility that Wyoming may permit the killing of wolves to boost populations of “game animals” such as deer, moose, or elk.

Real Recovery

The states mentioned above are not the only ones in which wolves will suffer due to deadly “management” plans. For example, federal reclassification and policy changes are likely to harm still-struggling wolf populations in the southwestern U.S., where wolves are already being killed by both poachers and the government.

API is using every available avenue to push for the continued protection of wolves. In addition to filing a lawsuit in federal court (see API Sues to Save Wolves), we are advocating for wolves through comments submitted to state wildlife agencies.

In our comments, API argues for continued rigorous protection of wolves, with recovery across their historic range as a primary goal; prohibition of recreational or commercial hunting or trapping of wolves; an emphasis on prevention of livestock-wolf conflicts through improved animal husbandry practices as well as use of non-lethal mitigation when conflicts arise; an end to the killing of wolves to boost elk, deer, and other wildlife populations for hunters; and public education about wolf behavior, biology, and ecological values.

It wasn’t long ago that deadly government policies nearly killed off wolves for good in this country; animal advocates battled hard to save these majestic animals from extinction. Clearly, with wolf populations still struggling, and the government determined to wage war anew, it’s too early to declare the fight over.

API Sues to Save Wolves

In October 2003, API, along with sixteen other animal protection and conservation organizations, filed suit in U.S. District Court to stop the scaling back of federal protections for wolves. The coalition believes that the “downlisting” of wolves from “endangered” status to “threatened” violates the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Under the ESA, species listed as “threatened” are not afforded the same protections that “endangered” species enjoy. By law, a species can only be downlisted or removed from the list if “it is neither endangered or threatened because the species has either become extinct or recovered.” Once a species is de-listed, it is left to states to determine how the species is managed.

Wolves have not sufficiently recovered to warrant removing federal safeguards because wolf populations remain relatively small and isolated, especially when compared to their previous abundance and distribution. Downlisting would put wolves at risk, since many states openly hostile to wolves would be handed authority for managing the species.

When Europeans first set foot in North America, as many as 400,000 wolves lived in nearly all regions of the continent. By the 1970s, centuries of slaughter had eliminated wolves from the wild everywhere in the contiguous U.S. except in northeastern Minnesota, where about 1,000 gray wolves remained. Despite some successful efforts to recover wolf populations, the species remains absent from most of its historic range.

API will keep Animal Issues readers apprised of the suit's status as it progresses.

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