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Column: Conservationists' opposition to hunting wolves is wrongheaded

by Writers on RangeMike Medberry
| September 16, 2009 12:00 AM

I never thought I’d say this, but wolf recovery in the West has been the most successful program ever accomplished under the Endangered Species Act.

Thanks to the efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are more than 1,650 wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming today, as well as a couple more wolves in Oregon, Washington and Utah. Only 15 years ago, there were none.

For many years I doubted that wolves could ever be restored to the West. Now, packs can be found in most of the formerly vacant drainages in central Idaho, filling nearly all of their original niches. But because of their recovery, wolves can now be hunted in Idaho and Montana, where about 20 percent of the wolf population is scheduled to be killed this year. For just 12 bucks, you, too, can shoot a wolf in Idaho.

In the 1980s, I worked with the Idaho Conservation League, and we challenged the original wolf reintroduction proposal in court because we had evidence that two wolves already lived in northern Idaho.

The Fish and Wildlife Service argued that only a reintroduction plan could recover the wolves in the Northern Rockies, and we lost the case. The federal agency was right, however, and its work in wolf recovery is, frankly, an amazing accomplishment.

When the wolves were brought back in 1995 and 1996, the decision stated that when the population grew to 15 pairs in two out of the three reintroduction states, the wolves would be “delisted” – taken off the endangered species list that protects animals from being killed.

A few years later, the number of breeding pairs triggering a delisting was increased to 30 pairs in two of the three states. In 2009, I am no longer working for the Idaho Conservation League, but I know that the number of wolves in Idaho is far greater than 30 breeding pairs.

Now, several conservation groups are fighting to keep the wolves listed as endangered for ecological reasons – despite the number of wolves and their apparent success. The groups’ lawsuit argues that the wolves have not recovered yet.

That is simply disingenuous, as the goal has clearly been met. Conservationists need to be honest about their goals. If they insist on supporting shifting numbers, they may find that they represent shifting support. More to the point, however, is their refusal to accept that this victory for wolves endangers the Endangered Species Act, which protects all endangered species. What Defenders of Wildlife and other groups have done in filing a lawsuit fails to serve the wolves, the integrity of the law and the people of Idaho and the West.

At the same time, Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game needs to make rules that reflect history: Wolves were slaughtered in the past and must not be slaughtered in the future. So far, the state’s rules are inadequate. If so many wolves are killed that fewer than 15 packs in both Idaho and Montana remain, the route to re-list the wolves under the Endangered Species Act should be clear, rapid and automatic.

Punishment also should be severe and automatic for anyone who poaches a wolf, and the trapping and poisoning of wolves should continue to be illegal, as that is primarily what caused their extermination in the first place.

In addition, each wolf that is legally shot should bring in at least $150 or even as much as $1,000 to the state of Idaho. The pittance of $11.50 for a hunting tag dishonors biologists, hunters, the federal and Idaho governments and the people of Idaho – not to mention the wolves themselves. It also dishonors the Endangered Species Act, which acts as the conscience of our nation with regard to wildlife. We have paid dearly to have wolves returned to our land, and the hunting tags we issue should reflect that. 

Finally, now is the time to stop bickering and begin to manage wolves rationally. I hope that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game makes it clear that wolves will continue to exist in our state forever. That is the agency’s job as it begins this new chapter in wolf management, with hunting added to the mix. Conservationists have a different task: learning to accept some losses of wolves in order to ensure their continued survival as a species.

(Mike Medberry is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in McCall, Idaho.)