Northern Rockies Wolves: They Coulda Been Contenders
Posted August 20, 2009 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places
"I coulda been a contenda." I was reminded of this famous Marlon Brando line from the film, On the Waterfront, upon reading that the author of the screenplay, Budd Schulberg, died last week. The line is particularly pertinent to the continuing drama surrounding Northern Rockies wolves. With roughly 1,500 wolves now in the region, up from a handful in the early 1980s, the rebound of the wolf population has been an incredible achievement. In fact, wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies is poised to be a contender for the greatest of endangered species successes in the country, rivaling the restoration of the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon and American alligator.
That is, until Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar decided in March to prematurely delist the population, allowing the states of Idaho and Montana to take the reins of wolf management. On Monday of this week, we learned another chilling lesson about what this move means: Idaho's Fish and Game Commission decided to open a hunting season on wolves, starting September 1st, with a quota of 255 wolves (220 for hunters and 35 for the Nez Perce Tribe), or 30% of the population in the state. Because the state's wolf hunt will be additional to other sources of killing, we can expect that, based on 2008 wolf killing levels, the population could be reduced by nearly 600 wolves-over 50% of the state's wolf population.
In Montana, the wolf quota is set to result in the killing of 75 wolves and reduce the population by roughly 15%. And more wolves are killed in Montana than any other state in the Northern Rockies; 110 wolves were killed as a result of livestock conflicts in 2008 alone. If this trend continues, hunting and livestock-related deaths could reduce the state's population by 25% or more.
In setting the wolf hunting season in Idaho, game and fish commissioners and others claim that wolves need to be reduced to save elk. Ah, c'mon. Elk numbers are flourishing in the region, including lands occupied by wolves. We have roughly 300,000 elk in the Northern Rockies, and we need a few thousand wolves to achieve lasting recovery. Given the abundance of elk, can't we find it in our hearts (and brains) to share some with wolves? Where is the balance here?
And where is the recognition of the important ecological role that wolves play in the ecosystems where they live? We should keep in mind that wolves and elk have evolved together for thousands of years. And extensive scientific research has demonstrated that wolves actually improve the health and vitality of elk herds, by killing the sick and weak.
When all is said and done, the real challenge facing the future of this still-vulnerable animal are conflicts with livestock. There are many tried-and-true methods to avoid and resolve such conflicts, such as the use of guard dogs, electric fences, and the penning of livestock at night. Using these and other techniques, numerous ranchers are demonstrating how to coexist with wolves. But this work can be costly and resources are limited.
Instead of pursuing counter-productive wolf hunts, why don't the states instead redouble their efforts to work with livestock operators on improving methods to address on-the-ground problems? That would be far more constructive than an indiscriminate hunt, which, by dispersing wolves across the landscape, could make conflicts worse. At NRDC, we are doing what we can to support work to resolve conflicts and improve the dialogue about creative problem-solving with livestock operators.
Shifting the states' focus from gunning down wolves to coexistence would go a long way to achieving lasting recovery. Northern Rockies wolves can still be contenders for the honor of one of the greatest endangered species recovery achievements in U.S. conservation history. But with no alternative recourse at this juncture, we'll have to again rely on the courts to give wolves the chance that these magnificent animals so richly deserve.
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