It began with one of those congressional quid pro quos, where bartering occurs almost below the radar, where members of Congress give a little to get a little, where seemingly unimportant concessions are made. But when the transaction took place in April, 2011, at the behest of congressional leaders from Montana and Idaho, a “rider” was attached to the stymied budget bill that removed wolves from the federal endangered species list in Montana, Idaho, and parts of Washington, Oregon, and Utah from the federal endangered species list and set the stage for near-term delisting in Wyoming, which occurred in 2012. The nation’s iconic apex predator, the wolf, is in the crosshairs just about everywhere and its future is quite bleak.
It wasn’t always so. In the 1990s, wolf recovery was one of wildlife’s greatest success stories. The Endangered Species Act protected those animals as they established a solid population. With delisting, they can be now be killed.
The persecution of the wolf is nothing new. Almost a century ago, hunters and trappers, lacking any knowledge of the balance between predator and prey, all but extirpated the wolf in the lower 48. Perhaps we can forgive that ignorance if not the cruelty pictured in countless poses from the early part of the 20th century, featuring men with brutal faces hoisting the broken bodies of wolves both trapped and shot.
We are wiser now, supposedly – yet men are again locked in a deadly battle to kill the wolves. We know that the predator is essential and we have very few that qualify to keep in check our burgeoning populations of moose, deer, elk and other ungulates as well as smaller animals: only the wolf, the cougar, and the coyote. Of all animals, the wolf is to be respected and protected for its importance as a keystone species with resultant status in the food chain. Recent research proves that the consequences of predator removal from a variety of ecosystems, a phenomenon known by its spiraling impact on biodiversity as a trophic cascade, does not stop with wildlife but extends to plant communities and the total biodiversity of a given area.
Up against the lust to kill, this caveat counts for nothing. In the most recent hunt, 872 wolves were killed: 121 in Idaho; 102 in Montana 102; 43 in Wyoming; 26 in Predator Zone; 117 in Wisconsin; and 407 in Minnesota. And the hunting season still continues in Idaho and Montana.
Beyond those stark figures are more disturbing facts. One is the imbalance between the importance of the wolf in its role as predator and the power of the rancher who grazes his herds on the public’s land. In Washington State, a particularly upsetting event occurred. Despite the fact that ranchers are compensated by the state for apparent wolf predation, nevertheless two members of the Wedge pack, first to arrive in the area since wolves were eradicated decades ago, were gunned down after reportedly preying on cattle.
It didn’t stop there. The complaints of a single rancher who had done little to protect his cows and calves (as is expected) resulted in the slaughter of the remaining six wolves of that pack by sharpshooters. And how was the pack located? Easily. The Alpha male had been fitted with a radio collar for research purposes. It was a simple matter — if not exactly sporting — to follow him to the rest of the pack.
Or how about the female wolf, a resident of Yellowstone, the first wolf killed in the 2012 Wyoming hunt, that heard the distress calls of a wolf pup and followed her maternal instinct to her death at the hands of a hunter waiting just outside the park?
In addition to the less than sporting aspects of such a kill, the loss of wolves used in intensive conservation research studies is disheartening. At least five radio-collared wolves that lived in Yellowstone National Park have been shot and killed as they unwittingly ventured beyond the Park’s borders. What had been learned about wolf behavior is lost along with those animals, an incalculable loss that will take years to duplicate.
If this seems as though the original trade-off to pass the budget bill has gotten out of hand, resulting in an impact way beyond its purpose, then let our elected representatives show some leadership and put a stop to it. This slaughter has got to end. It will take years to build the wolf population back to a sustainable level and we are damaging one of our most valuable natural resources.
For starters, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar must go, for he lacks the breadth of knowledge to manage the situation with wisdom. He is also a rancher, with the political outlook of a rancher, rather than a conservationist with credentials and the experience to back them up. That is what is needed. And it is needed now, before we find ourselves back at the ignorance level of a century ago regarding knowledgeable wildlife management — and at a very high price.
Virginia Fuller is former president of New England Wildlife Center.