Where wolves should be allowed to roam

Minnesota plan will set precedent for how to manage growing wolf

Her human-given name was B45-F, and since she crossed the Snake River a year ago on a nomadic journey from Idaho into Oregon, the lone gray wolf has opened a raft of questions about the reintroduction of wildlife predators.

At first, B45-F was a tooth-and-fur reminder of how successful wolf introduction has been across the United States. Today, she's representative of a battle being fought nationwide over how far wolves should be allowed to roam.

Appropriately, the most decisive step yet on this issue will be taken Jan. 26 in Minnesota - the state where wolves have made the most dramatic recovery. The state is expected to draw an invisible biological line in the sand, demarcating where the sometimes-popular, sometimes-reviled predators can be shot when they are removed from the federal list of threatened species here.

It is a policy decision that has attracted no small amount of attention, with one prominent scientist controversially suggesting farmers should be given great leeway to shoot wolves. Moreover, the management plan for caretaking wolves will shape the direction of wolf recovery from the upper Midwest to the desert Southwest and the Maine woods.

The recovery of wolves in the Land of 10,000 Lakes represents perhaps the finest example of government conservation agencies pulling a large carnivore back from the brink of extinction. In 1974, a year after the Endangered Species Act was passed, Minnesota was forced to protect the last pocket of wild wolves left in the Lower 48 states, a scattered population of only a few hundred.

Now, researchers place the number at more than 2,400 - almost double what scientists said would be necessary to delist the state population. Much of the success is owed to a prohibition on wolf hunting, trapping, and poisoning that decimated wolves elsewhere.

The recovery of wolves in Minnesota mirrors a trend of success in bringing wolves back to several regions. "We would be talking about maybe 10,000 wolves being back in the landscape [in the Lower 48]," says Robert Ferris, vice president for species conservation at Defenders of Wildlife, adding "there were 200,000 wolves before we started monkeying around with the natural systems."

The debate over how to manage the newly resurgent population of Minnesota wolves, however, has been stirred by L. David Mech, a biologist with the US Geological Survey's Biological Resources Division, who is renowned as one of the world's premier wolf gurus. Ironically, Mr. Mech - a fierce wolf advocate - argues that Minnesota must allow leniency for wolf killing in the state's farm country, lest citizens grow less tolerant of wolves.

What Mech is concerned about is a public backlash against wolves if society isn't prepared for headline-making encounters that are bound to occur. He claims that half of the wolves in Minnesota could be killed each year without it causing serious problems to the health of the population.

"The biggest lesson emerging from Minnesota for other areas in the West is that zoning has to be part of the equation," Mech says. "There must be areas where wolves will not be allowed to live."

Although livestock losses in the West have so far been less than expected, Mech predicts that they will increase threefold in Minnesota if wolf populations are not controlled. In addition, critics of wolf-recovery programs say the animals are already causing problems in towns. For instance, wolves allegedly snatched a cat off a front porch in Glenwood, N.M., they say, prompting parents to keep their kids indoors.

"You can't force these wolves down the throats of people who see them as a threat," says J. Zane Walley with the New Mexico-based Paragon Foundation, a property-rights group.

In Minnesota, the fight between farmers and conservationists continues to mold the direction of the wolf-management program. The Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association has threatened to sue if it deems the state's latest plan too restrictive. Conversely, if the state opens the door to liberal hunting, trapping, and killing, the Sierra Club may take legal action to stall delisting.

For the most part, though, the move to save wolves nationwide has been seen as a success. "Wolf reintroduction is a powerful demonstration of this nation's commitment to protecting and restoring endangered species," says Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

The federal government's wolf reintroduction efforts in the West were given a resounding affirmation two weeks ago when the 10th Circuit Court rejected a legal attempt brought by the American Farm Bureau Federation to have Yellowstone's wolves rounded up and removed from the park.

With at least 116 wolves in Yellowstone, 145 in central Idaho, and 64 in northwest Montana, momentum is building to downgrade their status. According to officials inside US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency may delist gray wolf populations in all the lower 48 states - not just Minnesota - soon after the Minnesota plan is released.

Wildlife experts say it is highly probable that wolves in the northern Rockies could eventually disperse into northern California, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington - just as B45-F did before she was trapped and returned to Idaho.

For now, US Fish and Wildlife Service says any wolves that disperse from their original recovery zones will be given latitude as long as they don't prey on livestock, eat pets, or stake out territories on the edge of towns.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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