Call of the wild echoes in West as wolf recovery succeeds
The predator is no longer listed as endangered, but its future in Yellowstone remains in dispute.
PRAY, MONT. — As lifelong cattle ranchers and hunting guides, neighbors Bruce Malcolm and Martin Davis feel blessed to call Paradise Valley home.
"Living here is a way of life," Malcom says. "Who we are is what we do."
Yet when these modern cowboys look down US Highway 89 toward the rugged interior of Yellowstone National Park, they are bound together by something more than topography: Both consider themselves "survivors" of the federal government's recent - and hugely successful - experiment with restoring gray wolves to the American West.
From Wyoming's Red Desert far south of Yellowstone and stretching hundreds of miles northward to the US-Canada border, packs of gray wolves now thrive in places where even a decade ago there were none.
Today, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service saying that biological objectives for wolf recovery have been met, ranchers such as Malcolm and Davis can't wait for the day when Uncle Sam hands wolf management over to Western states.
It's an action that few biologists predicted would happen so quickly after wolves were first returned to Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995.
Earlier this winter, the federal government quietly downgraded the status of gray wolves in the Lower 48 from endangered to threatened. And by the end of 2004, states could assume control over wolf management, granting ranchers more authority to shoot lobos that are perceived as a threat to their livestock.
Environmentalists are worried that could reverse the trend in wolf recovery, though Malcolm and Davis regard it as a reward for exercising tolerance toward animals they claim were imposed upon them.
Biologically speaking, wolf recovery has been an unqualified success, says Doug Smith, the lead wolf researcher in nearby Yellowstone, where huge crowds gather each year just to catch a glimpse of the animals.
in 1970, only 500 wolves inhabited the entire continental US, with the species clinging to a forested stretch of northern Minnesota. That prompted the federal government to add wolves to the endangered-species list in 1974.
Since then, strict rules protecting the animals from hunting, trapping, and poisoning, combined with bringing wolves back to places where once they were annihilated, have shown that Endangered Species Act protections work, adds Ed Bangs, the Fish and Wildlife Service's leader of wolf recovery in the West.
Today, the Great Lakes wolf population may number as many as 3,200, and the northern Rockies population has at least 660, with a new round of pups on the way.
Meanwhile, the Southeastern US has a population of between 80 and 90 red wolves; and in the desert Southwest, reintroduction of Mexican wolves has led to a population of two dozen animals.
"The return of the wolf has been a conservation triumph, but here's the rub," Mr. Smith explains. Environmentalists want to continue the success story by restoring wolves in the southern Rockies; in Washington, Oregon, and northern California; and in the East from upstate New York to Maine.
"Wolves could be put in a lot more places," Smith says. "While there may be an ecological carrying capacity in those spots, the level of social tolerance necessary for them to survive may not be there yet. I'm obviously very pro wolf, but I understand the concern of local people."
According to Mr. Bangs, wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone succeeded because there was a huge swath of public land with abundant game to accommodate them. Overall, there have been fewer conflicts with ranchers than experts predicted in the mid 1990s.
Since 1987, when wolf predation was first recorded in northern Montana, 237 cattle, 593 sheep, 57 dogs, and 9 llamas have been killed in the Rockies. During that same period, 148 wolves have been destroyed. To put the numbers in perspective, each year in the greater Yellowstone region, ranchers lose 8,300 cattle and 13,000 sheep to natural causes.
"Wolf kills make headlines, but no rancher has been run out of business by losing cattle to wolves," Bangs says. "That doesn't make us indifferent to the fact that to an individual livestock producer the loss of a few cattle ... can be costly."
As new wolf packs establish territories outside the national parks and wilderness areas, the probability of livestock predation has begun to increase.
Lawmakers in Wyoming recently passed legislation that would allow wolves to be shot outside national parks any time of the year and without limit. In turn, the Fish and Wildlife Service warned that such a plan could delay the removal of wolves from federal protection.
Wolf populations can withstand heavy losses, up to 30 percent per year, but they cannot withstand the kind of wide open extermination-style killing that the West witnessed in the 19th century, Bangs says. "I've always said that the best wolf habitat resides in the human heart. You have to leave a little space for them to live."
Although Malcolm and Davis still resent the government for bringing lobos back to their corner of the Rockies, they are resigned to sharing the land with predators.
"I don't really have any feelings toward the wolves," Malcolm says. "But I would feel a lot better about the situation if I could better protect my livestock rather than waiting for a wolf to make a kill."