Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior

Wolfology Item # 1200
(Nov/Dec 2000)

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A Howling Success
Elizabeth G. Daerr
Discusses the controversy over wolf recovery programs in the United States. What the original recovery program mandated; Wolf population at the Yellowstone National Park; Benefit of reclassifying wolves; Wolf status that allows federal agents to shoot nuisance wolves that have killed livestock.
A 1922 monthly report from the superintendent at Yellowstone National Park exemplifies the federal attitude toward wolves at that time: "It is evident that the work of controlling these animals must be vigorously prosecuted by the most effective means available whether or not this meets with the approval of certain game conservationists." By 1926, the last wolf had been shot in Yellowstone.
Nearly 30 years later, in 1995, when gray wolves were reintroduced to the nation's first park, the animals received a very different greeting. The only object aimed and ready to shoot them was a camera.
Today, an average of 15,000 people see a wolf in Yellowstone in a year, says Douglas Smith, the park's wolf project leader. His research team has recorded a wolf sighting for 135 consecutive days--all from the park road....
The comeback of wolves at Yellowstone is proof that the federal wolf recovery program is working. From the 31 wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Montana in 1995 and 1996, 116 adults now live in or near the park, and another 75 or so pups were born in April 2000--a number scientists expected to wait ten years to reach.
Although Yellowstone has been the primary focus of the federal recovery program, wolf populations have been doing well in other national parks without the help of federal aid. At Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, the park's wolf population has reached 29, the number that can be naturally sustained on the park's 210 square miles of land. In Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, between 40 and 50 wolves use the park and surrounding lands and are a portion of the more than 2,500 wolves in the state.
Wolves are doing so well, in fact, that the federal agency responsible for their recovery is increasingly finding itself in the position of responding to complaints about the animals from ranchers and farmers--the very same interests that drove local, state, and federal governments to shoot, trap, and poison the predator more than 75 years ago, nearly eliminating the animals from the lower 48 states.
In July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) published its proposal to reclassify the gray wolf from endangered to threatened status in 16 northern states from Maine to Washington that have suitable wolf habitat (not including the experimental classification of the Yellowstone area). In all or parts of 30 other states where the agency believes recovery is not feasible, the wolf would be removed from the list. If approved, the measure would go into effect as early as 2001. Curiously, many of the states proposed for reclassification, such as Oregon, Utah, South Dakota, and New Hampshire, have no documented evidence of wolves in recent decades.
Ron Refsnider, the agency's wolf recovery coordinator in Minnesota and an author of the proposal, says that the purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to "pull the species from the brink of extinction for the foreseeable future," and he believes the agency has achieved that. "We don't need to recover wolves across their historic range to meet the goal of keeping them from the brink of extinction," he says.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service establishes recovery not by state boundaries but by larger biological populations divided by regions: the Northwest, the Western Great Lakes, and the Northeast.
Although gray wolves may now be limited to six states, suitable habitat exists in the other ten states. This 16-state region does not include New Mexico or Arizona, where the Mexican wolf, a subspecies of the gray wolf, resides.
Ed Bangs, USFWS recovery coordinator for the Northwest population, adds that relaxing protection in states where the animals don't exist will actually help protect the overall populations.
"People are fearful that wolves may kill their child or restrict their access to lands" that they depend on for their livelihood, he says....With more flexibility in managing wolves, Bangs believes there will be fewer illegal killings, and wolves will be tolerated in more areas....
Some environmentalists argue that the states have not proven their ability to protect endangered species, and turning management over to them could create a cycle of listing, recovery, and listing. In June, the Minnesota legislature passed a law that widens the legal limits under which wolves can be shot in anticipation of the Fish and Wildlife Service's proposal....
....Each of the states with core wolf populations should have a state management plan that monitors the population, health, and location of the wolves before Fish and Wildlife Service will delist them. Additionally, the Fish and Wildlife Service is required by the Endangered Species Act to monitor the populations for the first five years the animals are under state control. Any sign of wolves headed for danger would result in serious consideration of relisting, Refsnider says.
In the Great Lakes region, Michigan and Wisconsin have already established management plans in anticipation of the agency's move, and Minnesota must still develop a plan to supplement the control measures stipulated by this year's law....
Meanwhile, the wolves that live within national park boundaries of the Great Lakes region are thriving. In addition to healthy populations at Voyageurs and Isle Royale national parks, dispersing animals have been found moving through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan. Voyageurs biologist Jim Schaberl says he has few concerns that removing wolves from the endangered species list in Minnesota would have an immediate negative effect on the park's wolf packs. His only fear is that if hunting and control measures in nearby areas of the state dramatically diminish the overall population, exchange of wolves across the park boundaries may be reduced and affect the park population.
Wolves can disperse up to 500 miles to find new territory, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is envisioning natural dispersal as one possible mechanism to supply the northeastern recovery region of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. Anecdotal evidence suggests that individual wolves have moved from Canada into the region, but the agency currently has no plans to actively reintroduce the species there, Scott says.
Illustrating the controversial nature of wolf recovery, the New Hampshire state legislature last year approved a bill banning the reintroduction of wolves. None of the national parks in the Northeast are large enough to support wolf populations; however, some environmental groups are pushing to create a 3-million-acre national conservation area in northern Maine, informally named Maine Woods. A park that size might accommodate several packs.
Far from the laissez-faire policy the federal agency has adopted in the Northeast, USFWS has conducted one of the most comprehensive and successful reintroduction programs in the Northwest. More than 300 adult wolves inhabit areas of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, with the highest concentration living in Yellowstone National Park. The original recovery program mandated establishing for three consecutive years ten breeding packs in three separate locations. Getting the exact number in each area has been difficult. Overall, however, 30 packs have been established throughout the region, and the agency hopes that within the next three to four years it can remove federal protection from the species in those states. In the meantime, experimental wolf populations in Yellowstone and Idaho will continue to have partial protection as "experimental," a status that allows federal agents to shoot nuisance wolves that have killed livestock.
It is possible, says the Fish and Wildlife Service's Bangs, that Northwest wolves would colonize areas of Washington, Oregon, Utah, and Colorado, although recovery in those states is not part of the federal plan.
A recent incident in Oregon suggests that wolves may not be welcome there either. This spring when a wolf crossed the Snake River from Idaho into Oregon, the animal elicited such controversy that federal agents had to trap the wolf and return it to Idaho. So far, only Washington State has developed a management plan that would be implemented if the Fish and Wildlife Service delists the animal....
A major benefit of reclassifying wolves will be the amount of federal money saved, Bangs adds.
"The fewer...animals you have, the more intensely you have to manage," he says, and management is the greatest cost. The annual combined cost to the USFWS and the National Park Service on wolf recovery in the Northwest is $1.2 million, and the total cost for the project since 1974 is $15 million. Nationally, USFWS spent an estimated $2.3 million in 1998 to monitor wolf populations to reduce conflicts with people. If states begin issuing permits to individuals to hunt wolves where they are prevalent or to shoot those that threaten humans or livestock, the cost to the federal government will decrease.
The proposed reduction of federal protection of gray wolves will no doubt be controversial, and...the Fish and Wildlife Service expects multiple lawsuits to ensue, which could delay implementation for several years.
For now, a few of the national parks are the only places where wolves continue to roam "unmanaged." In fact, Isle Royale may be the last place on Earth where humans do not interfere in any way with the wolves' natural order. The question remains, however, in those places that we have chosen: will we allow wolves, and other species, to live with us?
Charlie Scott admits, "The only determinant to wolf recovery is man."
In Alaska: The Call of the Wild
The proposed USFWS reclassification will not affect Alaskan wolves, which are not listed as endangered or threatened, but the ongoing battle of one issue is indicative of the growing momentum on each side of the wolf-control debate.
In 1996, Alaska voters approved a public initiative that stopped the shooting of wolves the same day they were sighted by a hunter in a small plane. The reason: residents wanted to promote a basic sense of fairness to big game animals that were hunted. In response, the state legislature passed a law this year to reinstate "land-and-shoot" hunting in five areas of the state where the Alaska Board of Game said wolf control must be stepped up to allow diminishing ungulate populations to rebound. Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D) vetoed the law. The legislature overrode the governor's veto, and now a referendum to reinstate the ban on land-and-shoot hunting is on the ballot for November.
Much of the controversy centers on two areas bordering Denali National Park and Preserve. The Nelchina basin, southeast of the park, is easily accessible for urban hunters from Anchorage and Fairbanks. McGrath, west of the park, and the three other areas that the legislature has opened to land-and-shoot hunting provide rural residents with subsistence hunting. Moose are key prey species for wolves. In recent winters crusty snow conditions created situations favoring high wolf predation....Now wolf populations are sufficiently large that the animals and bears cause nearly 100 percent moose calf mortality. This has led to shorter subsistence and other hunting seasons. For example, hunters reported killing 860 moose in the Nelchina area in the 1998-99 season, whereas the average number of kills for the previous three seasons was 944. During the same season, the agency estimated that about 500 wolves and between 1,000 and 1,500 bears killed between 9,000 to 12,000 moose in the game management unit containing the Nelchina area.
The agency's last available numbers for statewide populations are from 1995 and estimate that there were 144,000 to 160,000 moose and between 7,000 and 9,900 wolves. The agency has also recorded an average of 1,300 wolf kills annually for the last five years. Wolf hunting and trapping are legal in Alaska....