Wolf wars: Can man and predator coexist in the West?
As the gray wolf comes off the Endangered Species list, new questions swirl about whether the animal can survive without federal protection – and its impact on cattle and other wildlife. The view from one ranch.
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One reason the wolf recovery took as long as it did in the West was the difficulty of the task: It required transplanting wolves from Canada into areas of the US where they hadn't existed in decades.Skip to next paragraph
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But the process was also fraught with politics. From the start, ranchers and other antiwolf interests tried to thwart the reintroduction program and have wolves rounded up and removed, while conservationists fought tenaciously to keep them alive. Both sides filed innumerable lawsuits. Hyperbolic claims of impending disaster for cattle and game animals ricocheted through newspaper columns and congressional hearing rooms. Federal authorities had to pursue criminal prosecutions to keep wolf poachers at bay.
The delisting process has been no less contentious. Normally, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, an arm of the Interior Department, removes animals from the ESL based on scientific criteria. But even before Salazar acted in May, two Western US senators, Jon Tester (D) of Montana and Mike Simpson (R) of Idaho, took the unprecedented step of drafting legislation to force the federal government to give up management of the wolves in their states. They cited frustration with environmentalists' attempts to delay the process. The measure passed in March, embedded in the federal budget agreement signed by President Obama.
Almost immediately, Montana and Idaho started making plans for a sport hunt this fall aimed at harvesting hundreds of wolves. Idaho also started shooting wolves from helicopters to kill animals that biologists say are harming elk herds.
Environmentalists, as a result, have gone back to court again, arguing that the legislative removal of wolves from federal protection is unconstitutional. They worry that it will lead to politicians, instead of wildlife professionals, making decisions on when and how to remove other animals from federal protection.
"There will be future attacks on the protections that the Endangered Species Act provides to species that are vulnerable," says Tom France, regional director of the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, Mont. "Legislators will look for any vehicle to provide a political solution and will cite the wolf case as an example to buttress their position."
The existence of another lawsuit has muted the euphoria ranchers would normally feel over stripping wolves of federal protection. Jim Peterson, a cattleman in Buffalo, Mont., who also serves as senate president in the state's part-time legislature, says ranchers and sheep producers have become so jaded over the years that they simply don't believe delisting will be carried out.
"It's not that we don't welcome it, but all this talk of ranchers being given increased flexibility to protect their livestock is being received with mixed emotions and, frankly, distrust," says Mr. Peterson. "People out in ranch country are still not really convinced it's going to hold up. Every time we seem to be moving forward, environmentalists file lawsuits and it gets stopped."
Peterson laments that wolf packs are moving out of the mountains and onto the prairie where his own family ranches. But his fears would be lessened, he says, by regulations giving ranchers more latitude to control wolves without having to worry about being charged with a federal crime.