`Endangered’ no more | AspenTimes.com

`Endangered’ no more

Steve Benson
Aspen Times Staff Writer

In the northern Rockies, the Stateline Trail weaves across the borders of Idaho and Montana as it follows the crest of the Bitterroot Divide. Five years ago, while backpacking through this area, I met two men with tracking devices who were curious about where I’d been, and when. They worked for the Nez Perce tribe and were searching for a wolf pack that had established a den nearby.

I knew nothing about any wolves in the area, let alone that I’d spent the night within a quarter-mile of their den. But I did wonder why the tribe was tracking the wolves. And, finally, was I technically in Idaho or Montana?

It didn’t really matter. But one thing was for sure: The wolves definitely didn’t know or care what state they were in.

“Wolves will go where wolves will go,” said Carolyn Sime, the biologist in charge of the wolf management plan for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

As far as wolves know, nobody’s paying them any special attention. But they’re at the heart of one of the largest federal animal-reintroduction programs – and public debates – the country has ever seen.

As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prepares to remove wolves from the endangered species list in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming for the first time since their lower-48 reintroduction in 1995, those three states are preparing their individual management plans. Once the wolves are no longer formally endangered, they will also no longer be managed or funded by the federal government. Their fate will be up to the states.

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It’s a pivotal moment for the gray wolf in the Rocky Mountains.

Eradication and restoration

By the 1930s, wolves had basically been eradicated from the West, with only sparse populations dotting the intermountain West. The last wolf in Colorado was killed in 1943 in the upper Conejos River basin, near Platoro Reservoir in the southern San Juan Mountains.

“Basically, we killed them all,” said Ed Bangs, the northwestern wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

Thousands of wolves were slaughtered, most for sport, some for their “reputation,” others for the same reasons they are killed today – attacking and eating livestock.

Ironically, the organization that has led the reintroduction campaign is the same that helped annihilate wolves in the early to mid-20th century.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s purpose was to kill off all the wolves,” Bangs said. “[We] started out as the ultimate wolf killers, and our job now is to restore wolves.

“We’re a government agency, and our job is to carry out the will of the people.”

Public perception started to change in 1964, when the Wilderness Act was signed into law. Inadvertently, the act protected wolf habitat for future restoration projects. In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, and wolves were listed under the act the next year.

In the early 1980s, changes in attitude and policy began to benefit wolves, as they broadened their territory.

“Wolves began dispersing down from Canada,” Bangs said.

In 1986, the “Magic pack” spent its first winter in the United States, denning in Glacier National Park. Almost 10 years later, in 1995, preliminary wolf reintroductions began, with the USFWS releasing wolves in central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Now nearly 800 wolves live in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

The Nez Perce

Before the reintroductions, the USFWS gave the three states authority and funding to develop their own management plans, but it took less than a year for all three states to back out of the deal, handing back responsibility to the USFWS.

Public opinion on wolves has been polarized from the beginning – people either strongly support wolf reintroduction and management or vehemently oppose the idea. All three states were simply overwhelmed, Bangs said, but in Idaho the Nez Perce tribe stepped up to the plate.

“Each state abandoned their effort, then the Nez Perce said, `Hey, can we give it a shot?'” Bangs recalled. “They’re pretty unique.”

Since 1995 the tribe has worked under the USFWS, managing wolves in Idaho. When the wolves are delisted, which according to Bangs will occur no sooner than 2005, Idaho Fish and Game will take over.

Separate but equal plans

The USFWS has determined that 30 breeding pairs in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming combined would be sufficient to remove wolves from the endangered species list. There are now an estimated 46 pairs, but before delisting, the USFWS and the states want solid management plans in place.

“Essentially, wolves are recovered from a biological point of view,” Sime said. “We are encouraging a timely delisting process.”

When the state management plans take effect, each state will have its own version. Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, along with the USFWS, have collectively agreed to maintain a population of at least 30 breeding pairs – 10 per state – in order to prevent wolves from rejoining the endangered list. They have also agreed, however, that each state will develop its own way to control wolf populations.

Montana and Idaho

The state management plans are both hefty and similar. Each plan acknowledges that wolves are thriving and that some population control may be needed, but the Wyoming plan differs in the way hunting will be used to control wolf numbers.

The Montana and Idaho plans have similarly wolf-friendly approaches to population control. Hunting wolves has been considered, but no decision has been made.

“We’re not sure yet about [making wolves] a trophy game,” Sime said.

She also stressed that Montana’s plan can and will be adjusted based on the wolf populations and on public feedback.

“It’s an adaptive management framework, with a different set of management tools depending on what is happening,” Sime said. “One of the management tools could include hunting and trapping.”

In Montana, Sime said, 10 breeding pairs is the minimum and 15 is the trigger, or signal, to adjust the management plan.

“If there’s less than 15 breeding pairs, the management tools become more conservative,” she said. And 15 pairs isn’t a Montana maximum, either. If anything, the state plans to err on the side of more animals.

Plus, Sime added, public input figures strongly in the plan.

“You can’t isolate wolves from their environment, and the environment includes humans,” Sime said.

Idaho’s management plan is similar.

“In most instances, wolves can be managed similarly to how other large, native mammalian predators are traditionally managed,” the plan states. “However, sport hunting has not proven effective in the past to effectively manage wolf populations.

“Hunting of wolves may be authorized when necessary to meet big game harvest objectives and eliminate conflicts,” the plan continues, “while at the same time maintaining wolves at recovery levels that will ensure viable, self-sustaining populations.”

The Wyoming approach

Wyoming’s plan when it comes to maintaining the 10-pair limit is more hunter-friendly. Wolves in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are protected under federal laws. In adjacent wilderness areas, however, wolves will be considered trophy game. And outside of the wilderness areas, wolves will be considered a predatory animal, meaning they can be shot on the spot.

“Under state law, a predatory animal is given no protection,” said Reg Rothwell, biological services supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Why is Wyoming’s plan so different?

Rothwell said the plan has changed considerably from what the agency originally proposed. “Probably the biggest single thing was the bill that went through our Legislature last year that reclassified the wolves,” he said. “Basically it spelled out that they would be trophy game in wilderness areas.”

Jon Schwedler, the communications director at Predator Conservation Alliance in Bozeman, Mont., had the following to say about the Wyoming process: “Before even the Wyoming Game and Fish people got together, the Wyoming Legislature started defining the laws.”

It’s not that Wyoming relaxed its planning, he added, “but rather they had a plan to have as little wolves as possible.”

Said Rothwell: “It’s more complicated than that. A lot of it had to do with the politics of wildlife – the sportsmen had concerns about the effect of the wolves on the elk population.”

Additionally, livestock owners have a long history of animosity toward wolves. While they are reimbursed for wolf attacks on livestock, Rothwell said the amounts are usually not enough. Some ranchers have begun shipping their cattle to other areas to avoid the headache. Sheep ranchers, Rothwell said, have taken especially heavy losses because “they seem to be the preferred snack by big trophy game.”

And before wolves, many of these ranchers had to deal with northwest Wyoming’s growing numbers of grizzly bears.

“You have a sheep rancher, and grizzlies are whacking his sheep,” Rothwell said. “Then you [bring in] wolves, and he starts thinking, `Is the rest of the country crazy?'”

Furthermore, Rothwell said, the compensations don’t cover the hunting dogs killed by wolves or the added stress in the already difficult ranching business.

“These poor people, you’ve got to imagine that it’s real hard for a lot of [them],” he said. “There are truly a lot of these people who are just barely making it by.

“A lot of these people had influence in how our legislation was written,” he continued. “We’ve got county commissioners, they’re just freaking out over this. This is not a small issue in northwest Wyoming.”

All the while, the wolf advocates are just as passionate about the issue.

“We [the Wyoming Game and Fish Department] are stuck in the middle here, we’re the ones stuck with trying to figure out what’s going to work,” Rothwell said. “I just think that it would go a long way if people on both ends of the spectrum could try to understand where the other side is, because this doesn’t have to be as contentious as it is.”

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com

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