Maybe I was naive, but I once thought a story about wolves was just a story about wolves.
That was up until the point that the leader of an anti-wolf organization in Wyoming threatened to take out a full-page ad declaring me a wolf sympathizer who wrote blatant lies, in an attempt to get me fired.
My offense? I spoke to—and quoted—pro-wolf groups.
The ad never ran. My editors stood behind me. But I received a vivid personal lesson that, when it comes to wolves, there are no neutral feelings. During more than four years working as a reporter in Jackson Hole, Wyo., I learned that few issues polarized people more than wolves—not mountain lions, not even grizzly bears.
For some, wolves are Satan's minions, loosed upon the earth to wreak havoc, death and destruction.
Others see them as enlightened creatures, transcending earthly bonds to help humans on their spiritual quests.
The mundane truth lies somewhere between the bowels of hell and plains of nirvana. Finding that middle ground may well prove the greatest challenge for wildlife managers as gray wolves are removed from the federal Endangered Species List and come under state control.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the delisting of the Northern Rocky Mountain population of gray wolves on Feb. 21. The rule will hit the Federal Register on Feb. 27, and after a 30-day cooling off period, wolves could officially be under state control by the end of March.
The big bad wolf is coming home.
- Idaho Fish and Game Department
The delisting affects not only Idaho but also Montana, Wyoming, the eastern one-third of both Oregon and Washington and the northeastern corner of Utah.
It will mark the end of a long road for Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for Fish and Wildlife. Bangs left Alaska 20 years ago to take over the recovery efforts in the Intermountain West and has a clearer understanding than most of the emotion behind the issue.
"Wolves and wolf management has nothing to do with reality," he said from his office in Montana. "It has to do with people's perceptions.
"When you think about it, mountain lions are a pain in the butt," Bangs said. "There are more than 30,000 mountain lions in the Intermountain West, and no one argues about getting rid of all [of them]."
From the founding of Rome by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, who legends say were saved as infants by a female wolf, to Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs, legends of wolves are rooted in nearly every culture. Consider the phrase "crying wolf"—raising alarm by drawing on people's worst fears.
Those fears were voiced loudest in 1995 and 1996, when 35 wolves from Canada were released into Idaho's wilderness. Since then, the population has grown to roughly 713 known wolves in the state, divided into 83 packs with 43 breeding pairs.
The success of the wolf recovery program is evident throughout the Intermountain West. The 66 wolves originally released in the region have multiplied to roughly 1,500 animals now scattered across Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
For the past 12, years it's been federal policy guiding wolf recovery, but wildlife agencies in Idaho and Montana have been taking an increasing share of the responsibility since wolves neared recovery benchmarks early in the decade.
Bangs praises Idaho's management work. But figuring out the biological management of the species is the easy part.
"Wolves are a piece of cake to manage," he said. "But socially, that's the hardest [part]. People make it more emotional.
"Most of it is not about real things," Bangs said. "It's about what people think wolves are. Getting facts out to people is very difficult with wolf issues because people don't want to believe them. They want to believe [wolves are] either the spawn of Satan or God's chosen few."
His Idaho counterpart agrees.
"People are still very polarized in a lot of their feelings," said Steve Nadeau, large carnivore manager for Idaho Fish and Game. "[There are] a lot of people that don't think the wolf population should be managed at all, and others who don't think we should have wolves at all in the state."
As part of delisting, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming had to prepare comprehensive management plans, outlining everything from conservation to conflict management. This is where the nuts and bolts become the day-to-day reality of wolf management. Idaho got its plan approved by the Fish and Wildlife in 2002. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has gradually taken over much of the daily management of the species since then.
Fish and Game will team with the Nez Perce Tribe; the state agency will dedicate three full-time employees and several seasonal workers to the task, while the tribe will add one full-time biologist.
Under the state plan, Idaho will maintain no fewer than 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs—more than the 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs originally called for in the federal recovery plan. They'll classify wolves as big game, and allow limited hunting, depending on population size.
Nadeau said statewide quotas will be divided among hunting units, based on population objectives in each area. That means they'll allow the most intense hunting of wolves in areas that have a history of the most frequent conflicts: Salmon, Challis, McCall, Cascade, and even just east of Boise. If they deem it necessary, the state can choose to bring the wolf number down even further through agency action.
If delisting happens on schedule, Nadeau said Idaho's first legal wolf hunt could happen as early as this fall.
Of course, Idaho's proposed hunt has already grabbed national headlines. Barely a year has passed since Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter uttered the now-famous declaration: "I'm prepared to bid for the first ticket to shoot a wolf myself." Coverage of the inflammatory remarks got people on both sides riled up all over again. "Butch Otter is a rabid dog," wrote one letter-writer to Outside magazine.
The hunting aspect of the plan has been the most controversial for those who oppose delisting in the first place.
"The state plans would turn back the clock to allow massive killing of wolves," said Suzanne Stone, wolf conservation specialist for the Northern Rockies region of Defenders of Wildlife. Stone said she fears the state will attempt to bring the wolf population down to the minimum of 150, despite promises from Nadeau and other officials that the actual number will be much closer to what it is today than the minimum.
"That's the floor, and we don't ever want to reach the floor," Nadeau said of the 150-wolf mark.
Stone still isn't buying it.
"Even if Idaho Fish and Game might want to maintain a higher population, the State Legislature adopted the plan, and their authority supersedes the department," she said. "They are two very different strategies, but one of them is in state law."
For a better model of how to get wolves off the endangered list and into state hands, Stone points to Minnesota. In that state, the western Great Lakes wolf population was taken off the Endangered Species List a year ago. The area is home to roughly 2,500 wolves, but the state has called for a five-year hunting moratorium to get a handle on conservation issues.
Stone was a member of a committee that provided early feedback on Idaho's management plan. From where she sat, it seemed like state officials were more interested in the number of wolves that could be killed rather than preserving the species.
"We didn't bring wolves back just to have them persecuted and killed down to the levels they're proposing," she said. "If Idaho was interested in managing the wolf population like other species, they wouldn't be talking about a couple hundred wolves."
Life with Wolves
From the beginning, wolves brought with them some pretty heavy social baggage. Hunters feared the wolves would decimate game species, especially elk, deer and moose, while ranchers worried that their sheep and cattle would become moving buffet lines for hungry packs.
For ranchers, learning to live with wolves has required a steep learning curve. The greatest risk to livestock comes in the summer, when herds of cattle and flocks of sheep are moved to summer pastures, often on public grazing allotments.
Depending on the location of these assigned allotments, ranchers have had a vast array of experiences with wolves.
While Stone said only 10 percent of ranchers in the state have conflicts with wolves, 1 percent of those suffer chronic losses.
From the beginning of the wolf-recovery effort, Defenders of Wildlife has worked with ranchers across the West, helping to come up with non-lethal strategies for dealing with wolves, providing financial help, and reimbursing ranchers for animals lost to wolves.
They started by looking for ways to keep wolves away from livestock. The privately funded organization has helped cover the costs of things like hiring additional range riders, buying guard dogs, installing fencing, lighting and even alarm systems. Last year, Stone's group spent $80,000 on non-lethal systems.
But when those methods fail, and animals die, ranchers want to be reimbursed.
In 2007, Defenders of Wildlife paid out $984,474 for wolf-related livestock deaths in five Western states. They spent $254,610 on Idaho ranchers, paying for the deaths of 192 head of cattle and 982 sheep.
Stone said her organization pays 100 percent of the market value for animals confirmed killed by wolves and 50 percent of those likely killed by wolves.
But the end of federal protection also means the end of reparations to Idaho ranchers—at least those from Defenders of Wildlife. It will now be up to the individual states to fork over the money for livestock lost to predators—a program already in place for animals killed by bears and mountain lions.
Nadeau said the state is prepared to take on those costs, but the payment levels have yet to be determined by his agency.
The Idaho Legislature has taken steps to give ranchers more rights: Now it's legal under state law to shoot a wolf harassing livestock—something that had already been allowed under federal protection.
Each year, Fish and Wildlife hunters kill roughly 10 percent of the wolf population because of conflicts with livestock, Bangs said. To date, agency hunters have killed 724 wolves in what is officially called an "agency control action."
Illegal hunters kill an additional 9 percent of the population each year. Still, the overall number of wolves is increasing by 24 percent annually, Bangs said.
"Most ranchers are the biggest fans of wildlife," Bangs said. "What I've heard is 'wolves are beautiful, I just don't want them eating all my cows.'
"[It has] been a pain in the butt, but it's a manageable situation ... unless you're the guy who keeps having problems all the time. Wolf depredation is small overall, but to a few individuals, it's a huge thing."
The Hunt is On
Ranchers aren't the only ones concerned about what wolves are snacking on. Since the species was first brought back to the Northern Rockies, hunters have decried the loss of their prized game species, some going so far as to say that the wolves would kill just about everything in the forest.
The forest critter apocalypse has yet to manifest itself. Still, wolves are making their presence known, Nadeau said.
"Wolves are not benign like some people might suggest," Nadeau said. "Wolf populations can have impacts, in localized areas especially."
Stone argues the impacts are far from cataclysmic.
"Wolves are efficient hunters, but they do not eradicate their prey species," Stone said. "If they did, it would be suicide."
Elk get the most attention, from both wildlife managers and hunters. While Nadeau said Fish and Game officials are seeing lower-than-expected numbers in some areas of the state, the overall population has increased in recent years. Those areas where elk numbers are on the decline are typically seeing a combination of factors: drought, hard winters, loss of habitat and other predators, including black bears and mountain lions, Nadeau said.
"All the rhetoric of things being devastated is not true," Bangs said.
Many of those who make their living off of Idaho's big-game hunting opportunities welcome state management of wolves.
"We understand the wolves are there to stay, and we support the delisting of wolves so that the state can get on with the business of management," said Grant Simonds, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association. The group represents 250 boating, hunting and fishing guides, roughly half of the registered outfitters in the state.
While Simonds said the group has grown to accept the presence of wolves, the process hasn't been without its problems. The challenge for outfitters, Simonds said, is the state's assignment of turf for their business operations.
"You can't just pick up and move your business because you've got three wolf packs that operate in the same area," he said.
Simonds said the presence of wolves has changed traditional migration and feeding patterns, making it more difficult for hunters to find both deer and elk.
"Repeat business is a staple of a successful outfitter business, and that can quickly erode if an outfitter can't locate elk because of a predator/prey situation," he said.
Simonds said he doesn't dispute Fish and Game's claim that the overall population of elk and deer is up, but said the animals are moving to areas where they haven't been before.
"[Wolf reintroduction] has been a very difficult issue for our industry, but in the same breath, [after] 12 years here, we understand they're here to stay. And we understand they've had a detrimental impact on our industry, and that's the way it is," Simonds said.
While some guides in the Yellowstone National Park area have turned wolf-viewing trips into big business, Simonds said he sees only limited potential for sight-seeing success in Idaho.
"Idaho doesn't have the same, or similar, viewing opportunities that Yellowstone Park has," he said. "[Idaho has] large designated wilderness areas that, to most of the public, are inaccessible."
Simonds admits there may be better luck in the Stanley area, but, he said it would take five wolf-viewing clients to equal a single guided hunter. Hunters, he said, spend more time in the state and drop more cash on supplies, lodging and other amenities.
But when the state's plan takes effect, wolves themselves will be a target for Simonds' clients. He said the chance to hunt a wolf will be a draw for trophy hunters, but after a few years, a wolf hunt will be more of a challenge.
"The first couple of years ... wolves and hunters will get used to one and other, after that they're going to be a difficult animal to hunt," he said. "Wolves are very smart and they'll adapt quickly—just like the elk did."
But beyond drawing hunters, Simonds, Nadeau and Bangs all believe opening a wolf hunt may have a surprising side effect—it will decrease the public's animosity.
In fact, Bangs calls said that outcome is "absolutely guaranteed."
"The best thing that could ever happen to wolves is to fold them into that routine management that allows hunting," he said. "[Wolves will be] seen as a normal animal that is not outside the normal realm. They're just another animal. That's the program for success."
"When [wolves are] a big-game animal, they'll gain more of a value than just something to see; they're a commodity, something to experience," Nadeau said.
In a recent Fish and Game survey of hunters, the overwhelming majority opposed having wolves in the state, but that result completely flipped when the opportunity to hunt them was suggested.
While it might be a draw, Nadeau said wolf hunting will never be a lucrative venture.
"It's always going to cost more than we're going to get from them," he said.
Cue the Lawsuits
Even as wildlife managers are preparing for the official transfer of control, they're readying themselves for what they believe are inevitable lawsuits from conservation groups.
"We know there's going to be litigation; there's always litigation about wolf stuff," Bangs said. "People become emotionally involved, and in our society, when that happens, you sue somebody."
It's up to the courts to issue an injunction to stop delisting, but Bangs and others don't see that happening. Judges have already declined to order injunctions in cases against delisting in Minnesota, as well as when wolves were reintroduced.
Stone is just as sure that lawsuits will soon be filed.
"[Conservation groups] have been telling the Wildlife Service that recovery goals and plans are not adequate to delist wolves," she said. "It's been falling on deaf ears.
"We have to start with a stronger management plan. There's no way the federal government can delist with such a weak plan," Stone said.
Under the stipulations of the Endangered Species Act, Fish and Wildlife will continue to monitor the wolf population for five years, largely through annual reports submitted by all three states. If the population drops below minimum levels for even one year in any state, the monitoring period will be automatically extended for an additional five years.
Despite the headaches, Bangs still believes delisting is the right thing to do.
"The Endangered Species Act isn't a success until the animal is delisted. That's the goal from day one," he said. "It's taken a long time to get here, but it's time to complete that circle."
Regardless of who has control of wolves, or how many lawsuits are filed, the real battle may still be for public acceptance.
"This has to be done in partnerships," Stone said. "We have to find that middle ground because the extremes are tearing us apart."