When 66 Canadian wolves were released into Yellowstone National Park and Idaho 15 years ago, it was a last-ditch effort to revive an iconic species that had been hunted to near-extinction across most of the United States.
To the delight of biologists and environmental activists, the wily, carnivorous wolves quickly formed up into packs, spreading throughout the northern Rocky Mountains and across the Snake River into Oregon. By the end of 2010, according to the US Fish & Wildlife Service, they numbered at least 1,651 in 244 packs and 111 breeding pairs.
In Yellowstone, according to biologists, that changed the behavior and numbers of wolves’ main prey: elk, which had become lazy with no one to keep them on the move. Elk numbers decreased, streams and rivers ran cooler and cleaner, benefiting fish populations as well.
It seemed to be a winning outcome all around. Except for one other species: those who saw wolves as a threatening competitor to domestic livestock (which wolves feed on now and then) and to hunters who now had to work a little harder to bag that trophy bull elk.
With the wolves’ comeback, all interested parties were working on a plan to “delist” the animal under the Endangered Species Act. As is typically the case with major environmental issues, federal courts had gotten involved in the effort to turn over wolf management to states.
This week Congress jumped into the fray. In a brief rider attached to the budget bill for FY 2011, lawmakers – with the Obama administration’s assent, however reluctant – removed wolves in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Utah from the federal endangered species list, returning wolf management to the states.
It was a bipartisan move, pushed by Sen. Jon Tester (D) of Montana and Rep. Mike Simpson (R) of Idaho, who emphasized that wolves had long since met the recovery goals set under the Endangered Species Act.
“This is more than a victory for Montana,” said Senator Tester, a farmer with a general liberal voting record who chairs the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus. “It’s a win for rural America, for jobs, and for our wildlife – and it’s what’s right for the wolves themselves. This was never going to get done with partisan games or grandstanding.”
Environmentalists aren’t happy, to say the least.
“What Congress has done today at the request of Senator Tester and Representative Simpson is unforgiveable and marks a low point in the recent history of wildlife conservation,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife. “Never before has Congress stripped Endangered Species Act protections for one particular species, putting politics above sound science and our national commitment to conserving America’s wildlife.”
“Senator Tester included the rider as a ploy to score political points in his 2012 reelection campaign, and now wolves and other species will have to pay the price,” he said. “This is a dark day for wolves and for all species relying on federal protections for their survival.”
Now, it’ll be up to western states to manage what had been thriving wolf populations. Given the statements by several governors, that’s likely to include more hunting of wolves.