It's not fire season yet, but there's enough smoke swirling around the wolf debate to obscure the real issues. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has claimed that the Northern Rockies population will be maintained at over 1,000 wolves after endangered-species protections were removed in Idaho and Montana in May. But there is no such requirement in the delisting rule standards, or in the laws of the states that will manage wolves after delisting. FWS' own wolf "recovery" standards provide for a Northern Rockies population of only 300 wolves, including 30 breeding pairs. FWS approved state laws in Montana and Idaho by assessing whether they would maintain only 100 to 150 wolves in each state. And FWS acknowledges that the states are free to implement aggressive wolf-killing programs after wolves are delisted.
Experts maintain that a recovery target of 300 wolves is simply too low to ensure the long-term health of the population. This target is based on a guess that the region could only support a few hundred wolves, combined with a calculus, made 15 years ago, of what would be a politically acceptable number of wolves. Given that elk populations in the region are at all-time highs and wolves have increased to over 1,500, that guesswork has proven false.
300 wolves is too few
And over the past several decades, scientific evidence has mounted that underscores the need for more wolves to ensure their viability. In a letter sent to FWS in 2007, nearly 250 leading scientists stated that "by any measure, a population of 30 breeding pairs (300 wolves) is insufficient to achieve an effective population size large enough to maintain essential genetic diversity."
Even FWS wolf recovery coordinator Ed Bangs conceded in a 2008 article in Science that the recovery goal of 300 wolves and 30 breeding pairs is too low.
In approving the recent delisting rule, FWS turned a blind eye to imminent wolf-killing plans by the states. Of particular concern is Idaho. Its fall 2009 wolf hunt is likely to resemble or exceed its 2008 approved plan, which allowed the killing of over 300 wolves. In addition, the "shoot, shovel and shut up" culture is alive and well in Idaho, where the state estimates over 100 wolves were killed illegally in 2008. Idaho's hostile approach to wolf management is symbolized by Gov. Butch Otter's 2007 announcement at a hunter rally: "I am prepared to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself."
With wolves being killed at a higher rate in Montana than any other state in the region, the state has a long way to go to make peace with wolves. Unfortunately, Montana is considering a proposal to kill as many as 165 wolves by hunting - more than a third of the current Montana wolf population.
Because of such fierce animosity toward wolves, combined with excessive wolf-killing plans by the states, legally binding standards that rely on the best available science are essential to long-term wolf recovery. Additionally, FWS should establish trigger mechanisms in the delisting rule that mandate prompt corrective action should wolf numbers fall below biologically sound levels.
These are some of the reasons why NRDC and other conservation groups are challenging FWS' delisting rule. It's time to commit to concrete actions to maintain a healthy wolf population on this world-class landscape. It's also time to redouble the challenging work with livestock operators to find new, creative solutions to the conflicts that can arise between livestock and wolves.
Louisa Willcox, senior wildlife advocate for The Natural Resources Defense Council, based in
Livingston, has been working to
conserve wildlife in the Northern Rockies for 25 years.