The second chapter of the gray wolf success story

Great Falls Tribune

by Jeff Welsch

A major new chapter is beginning in the Northern Rockies wolf saga.

Last month, Congress attached a rider to budget legislation directing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to remove Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in Montana, Idaho and parts of Utah, Oregon and Washington. On Wednesday, the agency implemented that directive.

This decision returns daily management to Montana and Idaho, meaning a great deal of work lies ahead for the states’ wildlife agencies and governors.

The battles over gray wolves have been among the most controversial in this region in years. The public, on both sides of the issue, is fully engaged. All those who cherish wildlife will be watching closely to see how both states choose to manage wolves over the next decade.

Since wolves were restored to Greater Yellowstone and central Idaho’s wilds 16 years ago, Montana and Idaho have insisted they can manage them. Now both will have the opportunity to show the nation they can ensure healthy, enduring populations for the long-term.

Wyoming, where wolves remain protected under the ESA, will not be allowed to follow the examples of Montana and Idaho until it produces a viable management plan.

GYC will closely monitor state management. We will work with agencies and local stakeholders to make sure wolves are managed like other wildlife.

This includes fair-chase, regulated hunting as an important management tool.

Probably starting this fall, hunters will be able to legally harvest wolves in the two states. If fair-chase hunting is conducted based on sound science and public involvement, we believe wolves will continue to fill their ecological niche on the landscape in both states.

What has often been lost in the heated controversy over state vs. federal management is the fact that wolf recovery in Greater Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies is an incredible success story — perhaps the most successful restoration of a species in America’s 100-year effort to improve wildlife management.

Twenty years ago, no wolves existed in Greater Yellowstone. Today, almost 1,700 roam the Northern Rockies — 500 in Greater Yellowstone alone — and ecological balance is being restored to our wildest landscapes through the presence of wolves and their interactions with other animals.

Along the way, some communities near Yellowstone National Park have learned how to benefit economically.

Studies show wolf-watchers add $35.5 million annually to their coffers from increased tourism.

At the same time, wolves have had a negative impact on some ranching and farming families due to predation of livestock and pets. In some valleys, wolves also have contributed to changes in distribution and populations of elk and deer. This, in turn, has angered hunters who treasure the presence of large herds for sport and food.

Addressing these conflicts — which are real and important — will require the entire wildlife-management toolbox, from research on populations, to monitoring for the presence of wolves, to reducing livestock conflicts using non-lethal techniques, to fairchase hunting, and to lethal control by wildlife managers responding to cattle and sheep predation.

We believe wolves will be resilient and adaptable, even in the face of intervention by agencies to reduce numbers through hunting or lethal control methods.

We have encouraged managing for 1,200-1,500 wolves across the Northern Rockies, as a population objective that will sustain this remarkable recovery.

If the total population does drop drastically below these levels, the ESA will almost certainly be used to return numbers to a sustainable population.

Most of the region’s residents — including GYC and its members — don’t want to see that happen again.

GYC has for years strived to find the middle ground on wolf management, to move beyond ongoing conflicts by using science-based management to monitor the impacts of wolves and to ensure public understanding of the vital role these animals have upon the regional landscape.

We are committed to working with state agencies, ranchers and the sporting community in the region to limit conflicts and ensure that future generations will have the opportunity to hear the magic of a wolf howl across the landscape. 

Jeff Welsch is communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman.