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Gray Wolves

An Ongoing Fight for Survival

The beautiful, majestic and elusive gray wolves, a keystone species that plays a critical role in maintaining the integrity of an ecological community, are territorial and live peacefully within its extended family. They are playful, kind to one another, and care for the young, old and the sick in their packs. They are predators and terrified of humans. Right now, they are the subject of an epic political war.

This January marks the 20th anniversary of the reintroduction of gray wolves to the Northern Rocky Mountains. On a bitter cold morning in 1995, fourteen gray wolves were brought down from Canada by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and released in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Soon they were roaming other parts of the state as well as in Idaho and Montana. 

The result has not been good for the wolves. They are under siege and in some states they are losing.

Back in the late 1800s, the state of Montana put into effect a program to eradicate all wolves as well as other large predators from Yellowstone—the reason being they were killing too many of the resident game animals. In 1914, when the U.S. Biological Survey—now known as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service— was founded, its focus was to eliminate the wolves from Yellowstone and surrounding areas. By 1930, wolves were wholly obliterated from Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

This created a disastrous imbalance in the natural order of the ecosystem, so much so, that in 1974, the federal Endangered Species Act was put into effect to protect and conserve wildlife from extinction. Gray wolves were now protected and recovered in strong, healthy numbers.

Fast forward to September 2012, when the FWS delisted gray wolves as no longer endangered in the Northern Rockies and the Western Great Lakes, including Michigan. Management of the animals was given to individual states, and almost immediately, they established open hunts. In response to a lawsuit filed by wildlife conservation groups, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently rejected Wyoming’s wolf management plan as “arbitrary and capricious.” It returned them to federal protection under the Endangered Species Act because there was no way to guarantee the state would honor its management agreement with the FWS.

Wyoming plans to challenge the ruling.

Wolf recovery is measured by the number of breeding pairs in packs that successfully raise pups. Northern Rocky Mountain states are still required to manage a specific wolf population of 30 breeding pairs and 300 wolves, with a buffer of 50 percent above those numbers. But the ongoing legal challenges between states and wolf advocates such as Defenders of Wildlife over wolf protection and management is nearly impossible to follow. Farmers, ranchers and those with political agendas would like to see the wolf permanently removed from the landscape.

As a starter, Western members of Congress, led by Montana senator John Tester, cleverly attached a rider to a 2011 budget bill that removed gray wolves from the endangered list in five states: Montana, Idaho, parts of Washington (where there are only 60 known wolves), Oregon and Utah, effectively circumventing the FWS process. President Obama signed it into law and wolf regulation was given to state wildlife officials. As it stands, hunters in Montana—once again the poster state for wolf kills— and Idaho have free rein to kill wolves on sight in unlimited numbers. 

According to Gavin Shire, Director of Public Affairs for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, D.C., “We will monitor very carefully population numbers in the Rocky Mountain and Great Lakes states for a minimum of five years to ensure the wolf’s recovery is not endangered. But if we find populations have declined, we can relist the wolves as endangered.” He also confirmed that FWS wants to delist wolves in remaining states across the U.S. A public comment period generated 1.6 million comments. “We are processing them and will make a decision in the next few months.” 

And Colorado? Well, there are no wolf populations in our state. According to a spokesperson from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, given the issues with wolves in other states, “We don’t have them and we don’t want them.” However, fortunately for the wolves, Colorado is among the 30 states that still fall under full protection of the Endangered Species Act.

So far, so good. They need all the help they can get. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / www.fws.gov/endangered