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Wolf Crossings

A Rural Viewpoint On Wolf Reintroduction And Protection

Reality Bites 

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Updated 9-06




Wolf Attack
In May 2002, veteran hunter and trapper

olf AttacWolf Attack Randy Blackburn was looking for shed elk antlers 10 miles from Yellowstone Park. He was riding a horse and leading a second one. Suddenly a spooked herd of 20 elk ran toward him; Blackburn figured a grizzly was chasing them. Then he saw four wolves pursuing the elk. When the wolves spotted him, they attacked Bullet, his packhorse. Blackburn finally caught up to the horse 300 yards from where the attack began. It wasn’t badly injured. Blackburn took pictures of the wounds and doctored the horse himself. Two USFWS agents separately investigated the incident. According to Blackburn, “One of them made me feel like I was lying, suggesting that the horse might have been kicked by another horse or wounded by a nail in my corral.” The wolves Blackburn identified had also been observed the day before the attack by one of the agents in the same area. This incident points out the skepticism the feds demonstrate over wolf complaints and the intimidation of the public because of the strict laws pertaining to shooting problem wolves.


Sportsmen Speak Out
Don Peay heads up the 15,000-member sportsmen’s group Sportsmen For Wildlife, with members in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and New Mexico. He surveyed members in Utah, and 75 percent said “no” to wolves being introduced to the state; 17 percent said “let them come, but manage them”; and 8 percent said, “Let them come—they’re part of nature.” Peay says that in the 1930s, bighorn sheep, moose and mountain goats were virtually extinct in Utah. There was no deer hunt for eight years in the ’30s because deer were extremely rare. During that period, only 2,000 elk inhabited Utah. Now, because of the financial and political support of sportsmen, Utah has 300,000 mule deer, 65,000 elk, 4,000 moose, 4,000 bighorns and 1,000 goats. “I believe hunters should have a big say in how much prey predators get to take,” Peay says. He notes that in areas where they’ve been able to get mountain lion hunting increased, mule deer have recovered dramatically. “We have a strong position on wolves,” he says. “We support immediate delisting, returning management to states.”

A Howling in the West

By Jim Zumbo

Not everyone is thrilled about recovering wolf populations.

December 2003

The Irma Hotel in Cody, Wyoming, is on the list of national historic places. Built in 1903 by Buffalo Bill for his daughter Irma, it's a hunter's mecca. At any given time in the fall, sportsmen from around the world drink and dine there

But if you're a supporter of wolves in the greater Yellowstone area, keep it to yourself when visiting the Irma or places like it.

I know a nonresident hunter who didn’t, and he came close to getting into a fistfight with an angry outfitter. And that wasn’t an isolated incident. That’s just the way it goes in towns like Cody that are close to Yellowstone.

Wolves seem to cause profound personality changes in otherwise laid-back, shy, gentle people. That’s because of the big canine’s ability to ravage game populations, as well as its hunting methods. There aren’t many predators in North America that kill their prey with the violence that wolves do. Before I describe it, let me say that you will seldom see a wolf attack on TV, because a wolf kill, unlike that of the lion or leopard, is normally not quick and “humane.”

A wolf attack is awful.

When wolves hunt, they do so by sight. They don’t scent-trail an animal. When they spot their prey, they give chase. It can be a very long pursuit, or a very short one, depending on the terrain, snow depth, size of the pack, ability of the prey to fight and other factors. The kill is not pretty. Wolf experts describe how typically one or more wolves will lunge at the flanks of the beleaguered animal with their powerful jaws, biting and slashing to shear away the hide and rip out the organs and cause severe blood loss. At the same time, another wolf will commonly jump up and latch onto the victim’s nose with its teeth, especially when the pack is hunting a heavy animal like a moose. With a 150-pound animal holding onto its nose and several others tearing its sides, the victim is history. The wolves continue to eviscerate the animal and gobble up the emerging entrails until it finally dies. This might take hours or even days—but rarely minutes.

So, knowing that this scenario occurs countless times every day in wolf country, how can we possibly accept wolf reintroduction in the West? I think most of us understand that in nature not many animals die gently. Violence is common when predators are doing the killing, but there is also long-term pain and suffering due to disease, parasites and starvation. Wolves are simply part of the natural equation of life and death.

If we can agree to that, let’s eliminate the emotion and look at wolves from the standpoint of the impact they have on their prey, which happens to include the animals that we like to hunt. Do we really want to share our elk, deer and moose with wolves? And will we ever have a chance to hunt wolves? Are we selfish, as some claim, wanting the elk, moose and other animals only for ourselves?

Living in Cody as I do, my perspective on wolves is different from that of someone who doesn’t live here. I worry about the local elk and the moose, and I’m concerned when I see a serious absence of moose where I’ve seen plenty of them before, and when I see alarmingly few elk calves as compared to before the wolves arrived.

I’m not happy when wildlife agencies reduce elk tags, because wolves are taking so many of the surplus elk that we’ve been hunting for years. Call it greed if you will, but that’s my opinion. Many biologists tell us that the low elk numbers are due to the drought, other habitat problems and increased numbers of grizzlies, but they seem to scoff at the notion that wolves are a significant mortality factor. I feel sorry for my rancher neighbor whose dog was killed by two wolves. He was unable to defend his pet because he would have faced a stiff fine and a possible jail term.

I’m frustrated that wolves have successfully exceeded the highest expectations of the people who reintroduced them, but we still can’t manage them.

When It Began
In my area, it all started in 1995, when 14 wolves were trapped in Alberta, Canada, and released in Yellowstone National Park by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The following year, 17 wolves from British Columbia were added. As predicted, some of the wolves left Yellowstone quickly, and their numbers in and outside the park grew rapidly. In 1997, there were 87 wolves. There were 112 wolves in 1998, 117 wolves in 1999, 177 in 2000, 218 in 2001, and 272 in 2002. Not only are their numbers growing, but the wolves are spreading at an incredible rate. Last year, for example, a collared wolf from Yellowstone was caught by a coyote trapper in Utah. The animal traveled some 220 miles from where it was initially released. Wildlife agents transferred the wolf back to Wyoming, where it rejoined its original pack. Every year, wolves are showing up in new areas, establishing new packs.

That’s why I believe we need to manage wolves as soon as possible. But let’s not mince words. Management means killing some to keep their numbers at acceptable levels. When, where and how many to kill are the big questions.

Solving the Issue
To some people, management isn’t an option. They want all the wolves killed. And then there are those at the other extreme who want to let wolves multiply unchecked and spread far and wide. Others, including me, say the solution lies somewhere in the middle. We want wolves managed in such a way that their numbers can be controlled, ensuring that big-game populations won’t suffer. For the record, I never wanted wolves in the first place, nor did the game departments of the three Western states involved in the recovery effort (Wyoming, Idaho and Montana). But now that the wolves are established, we must deal with them in a manner acceptable to the public, because the public, through litigation and the ballot-box, has the final say.

Killing all the wolves will never happen. It’s ludicrous to think it will. Though I don’t count myself among them, many Americans—and not just activist anti-hunters—are comfortable having wolves roam our Western forests. Even the most avid anti-wolf advocates concede that eradication isn’t an option. “The wolves are here to stay,” says Arlene Hanson, of Wapiti, Wyo. Hanson was the leader of the No-Wolf Option Committee and put up a gallant fight to stop wolf reintroduction in the early 1990s. “I’m not happy with them, but now we must work to manage them,” she adds.

Delisting: When?
Wolves were introduced into Idaho at about the same time that they were brought to Yellowstone. In northwestern Montana, a third area that had been identified for wolf recovery, wolves reestablished themselves by traveling across the border from British Columbia. Over the last dozen years these animals have multiplied rapidly. When wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone Park and Idaho, the USFWS drew up a recovery plan that would allow wolves to be managed if certain conditions were met. The benchmark established by the USFWS was to have 30 breeding packs among the three states. Once the wolves had become that populous, their recovery would be considered successful and they could be removed from the Endangered Species List.

But even though the objectives for recovery have been met, delisting is far from certain. First, there are logistical delays, such as the need for officials to verify the number of breeding packs. But the bigger problem is whether the USFWS and the three states involved in the recovery effort can come to terms over how the wolves should be managed in the future. The relationship between the states and the feds over the wolf issue has not been a happy one. All three states initially opposed the reintroduction efforts. It took intervention on the part of Congress to get the program started. Idaho, in fact, was so set against wolf reintroduction that the state refused to send any official representation to the table. Instead it fell to members of the Nez Perce tribe to represent Idaho’s wolves.

Despite the initial resistance to wolf reintroduction, however, all three states have produced and submitted plans for managing their wolves. Given the speed with which the wolves have been increasing, the states really had no choice. If they refused to draw up plans, the wolves would never be delisted and, therefore, would never be managed.

“We feel good about our management plan,” says Glenn Erickson of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “We finished it in September and the director signed it. We’re happy with the plan’s flexibility, which gives Montana hunters the opportunity to hunt wolves according to our guidelines. Once wolves are delisted, we’ll come up with regulations as to how, where and when to hunt wolves.”

Steve Nadeau, large carnivore coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, agrees. “Once wolves are delisted,” he says, “management will be the responsibility of the state wildlife agency, and we’ll work closely with the Nez Perce tribe. We hope to manage wolves as we currently manage black bears and mountain lions, allowing hunting with special ‘controlled’ permits.”

“We hope the delisting process will proceed according to schedule,” says John Emmerich of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. “We’re ready to establish hunting regulations on wolves once we have management responsibility.”

But Wyoming’s plan is drawing fire from many corners, including from the USFWS. Animal-rights groups and many conservation organizations are furious with it. Called a dual-designation plan, it states that wolves in Yellowstone National Park (92 percent of which is in Wyoming) and in some nearby wilderness areas will be designated “trophy class” animals. That designation means they may be hunted in keeping with well-defined management objectives (though the wolves would never be hunted in Yellowstone, of course). This is the same policy proposed by Montana and Idaho. But Wyoming goes a step further. The second aspect is the “predator” designation. According to a new statute passed by the Wyoming legislature, any wolves seen on national forests outside wilderness areas, or on any other public or private lands, can be shot on sight, just as coyotes.

Ed Bangs, USFWS Wolf Recovery Coordinator, responded to this issue in a letter to Wyoming Game and Fish Director Brent Manning on July 2, 2003. In part, he said, “We urge Wyoming to reconsider having wolves listed as predatory animals anywhere in Wyoming. That designation may spoil our mutual desire to successfully delist the wolf population and maintain a recovered population. Interior Secretary Gale Norton has commented that she is also concerned about the use of the predator designation.” Bangs also told me that while the predator designation is biologically sound, from a public relations aspect it’s a “disaster.”

Among other reasons, critics are concerned that a pack can be protected one day if they’re in a wilderness, but be shot on sight when they cross onto non-wilderness national forest land. Under that scenario, wolf numbers could be reduced below levels required by the federal government.

To add to the dilemma, Manning resigned in mid- September, citing “family reasons,” after having served less than a year. This leaves the Wyoming Game and Fish Department without strong direction from the top. There is obviously no clear, immediate solution. Wolf delisting and management could take years, but wildlife officials in all three states are optimistic, as is Bangs. As it stands now, an independent panel of 12 wolf experts has been chosen by the USFWS to examine the three management plans submitted by the states. They are scheduled to report back to the USFWS by November 1 (after press time for this article), and the agency will review their conclusions. By January 1, 2004, the USFWS is supposed to make its own recommendation regarding wolf management.  (well, here we are approaching Jan. 1, 2005 with ever more wolves. Cr)  

This will be recorded in the Federal Register, making it available for public review and, of course, litigation. If all goes well with no serious pitfalls, wolves could be delisted by December 2004.  (Ha!  April fool ! ! ! cr)

Many hope that day will never come. For many others, like me, it can’t come quickly enough.

One thing is certain. Wolves aren’t going away. As this is written, one or two could be headed in your direction right now. As a wolf biologist from Minnesota, where wolves increased from 1,500 to almost 3,000 in 10 years, told me a few years ago, “The only thing that will stop wolves from reaching Mexico is us.” Get ready.