“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something
known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor
the mountain agreed with such a view.”
— Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949
Wolves are a majestic species and a reflection of our struggle with preserving habitat for wildlife against economic exploitation for short-term profits. Gray wolves were almost entirely exterminated from the lower 48 states during the 19th Century when they were targeted as pests and competitors. It was thought that killing the wolves would increase deer populations and decrease livestock predation. But we didn’t understand the complexity of wolves’ interaction with herds and how that affects ecosystems. On the Kaibab Plateau, without wolves culling the herds, the deer overgrazed their habitat and thousands of deer starved to death. We began to recognize that the web of life is multifaceted and removing predators actually impacts herds in negative ways. Their comeback began in 1978 when the U.S. Federal Government listed wolves as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act, ESA, and were reintroduced into their former ranges.
Since their rebound, wolves have garnered a lot of political enemies. They have been blamed widely for livestock kills, although many states have reimbursement programs and in some places livestock kills actually decreased due to less coyote presence since they were intimidated by the new kings on the block. The wolves have also been blamed for elk predation, which many hunters see as solely their purview.
Views of wolves as savage, ruthless, and even dangerous have also reemerged, despite little evidence that healthy wolves pose much risk to people. Perhaps due to an exaggerated presence of wolves in nursery rhymes and fairy tales, we humans find these shy creatures scary. There have been only 6 documented fatalities due to wild wolves (2 of which were rabid) in North America in the past 100 years.
Despite such prejudices, decades of research has shown that wolves, and other apex predators, are actually vital to thriving, biodiverse ecosystems. Predators keep the balance in herd populations preventing overgrazing and habitat destruction. Wolves exert ecological influence by checking elk and deer populations as well as confining these populations to certain areas. For example, scientists studying the impact of reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone National Park found that new forests began to spring up after elks, which no longer felt free to roam and browse at will, took to more mature forests. The new forests brought greater biodiversity and ecosystem services. For example, new trees meant the return of another ecological standout: the beaver. Wolves also help maintain and control populations of meso-predators, such as coyotes. Here is a link to an amazing short video that shows how reintroduced wolves initiated a trophic cascade in Yellowstone and affected the ecosystem in profound ways. https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=ysa5OBhXz-Q
Hunters and trappers have killed 2,567 gray wolves in the U.S.’s lower 48 states since 2011, according to recent data. Gray wolves (Canis lupus) were protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for nearly 40 years before being stripped of their protection status by a legislative rider in 2011 added by Republicans in Congress. Last year total wolf populations were estimated at over 6,000 in the region. The 114 Congress (2015-17 introduced 20 bills aimed at eliminating protections for the gray wolf alone. The Center for Biological Diversity called it the “most anti-wildlife Congress we’ve had.”
Why exhaust so much time and energy attacking a single species? The real answer is that the protections wolves require in the West can run counter to the interests of industrial agriculture businesses and the oil and gas industry, both of which want to operate on land that is currently subject to protection because it’s wolf habitat. Trump’s nominee for interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, who will manage the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers ESA programs, once sent out a Christmas card featuring a dead wolf. Last year, Zinke co-sponsored a bill designed to remove federal protections for wolves. It looks like the anti-wolf, anti-ESA Republican Congress is finally getting both the president it needs to rubber stamp this legislation, combined with an administrator of the Department of the Interior prepared to carry it out.
In addition to both that rollback of the ESA and likely direct challenges to the wolf’s inclusion in it, wolves are under threat from the GOP’s plan to steal our public lands. Like all wild animals, wolves need habitat to survive. Development of resource extraction on those lands will further threaten them. Let’s stop voting for these jerks and enabling this type of legislation just because you think they’ll lower your taxes.
Here are two laws initiated by the current Congress. Note the laws prevent judicial review.
S.164 — 115th Congress (2017-2018): Introduced in Senate (01/17/2017)
This bill requires the Department of the Interior to reissue two rules that removed protections under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 for the gray wolf populations located in Wyoming and the western Great Lakes (all of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota, as well as portions of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio). In addition, this bill prohibits judicial review of the reissued rules.
H.R.424 — 115th Congress (2017-2018)
Gray Wolf State Management Act of 2017
(Sec. 2) This bill requires the Department of the Interior to reissue two rules that removed protections under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 for the gray wolf populations located in Wyoming and the western Great Lakes (all of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota, as well as portions of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio). In addition, this bill prohibits judicial review of the reissued rules.