As a wildlife management issue, wolf reintroduction has been one of the most controversial in Montana’s history. With the recent proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove federal protection in the lower 48 for gray wolves, that controversy is flaring up again.
The proposal is to keep protections on a small population of Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest, but remove protection for the estimated 6,100 wolves that live predominantly in 10 states, including Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington along with western Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.
The FWS is arguing that protection under the Endangered Species Act for the gray wolf isn’t warranted any longer because the species is not in danger of extinction in the lower 48. Environmental groups counter with the argument that wolves are only inhabiting a small percentage of their historic range and continued protection would assure their expansion to other suitable habitats.
The fact is the argument around wolves has seemed to always be driven by the extremes: those who want to preserve and those who want to eradicate.
Wolf reintroduction was controversial in Montana for many reason, but many of them centered on the simple fact that we humans use much of the land the wolves have come to occupy. Livestock producers now have to mitigate for wolves in their herd management around much of the western half of Montana. Hunters and outfitters who enjoy and depend on elk and deer herds also have complained, at times rather vehemently and persuasively, that wolves have depleted elk and deer populations in particularly areas of the state.
But federal protection for wolves in Montana was lifted two years ago and so as issues with livestock and game herds arise, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials can respond. And though some may not like FWP’s response to increasing wolf numbers, the agency has proven itself willing to adjust their seasons and regulations to try to figure out how to keep wolf numbers at a manageable level.
But take states like Oregon and Washington, where wolves are causing problems for livestock producers, but management strategies are limited because of the federal protection.
This is why ultimately wolf management is best handled by the states.
State management of wolf populations gives the greatest opportunity to walk the middle road between preservation and eradication. It’s a tough line to walk, but one that is more appropriate for states to tread rather than the federal government.
State wildlife officials have the best opportunity to know how wolves are impacting specific segments of their wildlife populations and adjust seasons as needed. They also have relationship with livestock producers and should be able to respond more efficiently to concerns with livestock depredation or at least work closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, which is the federal agency tasked with predator control.
If states do allow wolf numbers to drop again to perilously low numbers, then the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is there, armed with the Endangered Species Act, to again preserve wolf population numbers.
Those in favor of continued protection may argue that this view is a bit Pollyannic — that once wolves are off the list, there’s no chance of them ever getting back on again whether they need it or not. This may be true, but wildlife management and public consciousness of wildlife conservation has changed dramatically in the nearly 40 years since wolves received federal protection.
Wolves were shot, trapped and poisoned to near extinction in the early 1900s. It was a time when the wildlife conservation movement was in its infancy. Since then, we as a nation have created national parks, national forests and passed the Endangered Species Act. We, as a society, have made it very clear that we value conservation over eradication.
There was a time when it was necessary to focus on wolf preservation, but due to the success of transplanting wolves to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s, coupled with ESA protections, the wolf is no longer at risk of extinction.
We agree with those who point to the wolf recovery as a mark of success for the ESA. However, recovering wolves was only part of the deal. Now it will be up to the states’ wildlife management agencies and all their various partners, including sportsmen, conservationists and livestock producers, to ensure that populations never again need federal protection.