Kick ‘em while they’re down: With just three months left in office, George Bush is looking for something a little furrier than the economy or Arab nations to upset. Yesterday the Idaho Statesman reported that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is once again trying to remove the Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf from the endangered species list—for the second time—within the next two months.
On October 28—that’s today—the USFWS will seek public comment on the exact same proposal that it used to delist the wolf in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, and northern Utah back in March 2008. That delisting handed wolf management over to the individual states—but it was overturned in July by a federal judge who argued that state management was flawed (citing places like Wyoming, where it’s legal to shoot any wolf for any reason in over half the state).
Like the original proposal, the new rule would offer an alternative for leaving Wyoming off the delisting list, mainly to protect Yellowstone wolves, “because federal authorities were unable to demonstrate that wolves in Yellowstone were mixing genetically with wolves from other regions.” But of course wolves don’t recognize things like state boundaries, and so, if and when they wander across the Wyoming border into, say, Idaho, Yellowstone wolf or not, hunters and trappers can continue picking them off.
Predictably, wolf advocates are dismayed, saying that the Rocky Mountain region’s current population of 1,500 wolves is a far cry from the 3,000 to 4,000 needed to truly repopulate it. They’re expected to sue the federal government again if delisting is re-allowed.
“It’s frustrating to be so close to sustainable wolf populations in the region and to have the Bush administration try to rush a slipshod delisting proposal through before it leaves office,” said Louisa Willcox, senior wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It reverses course in yet another attempt to undo one of the great conservation success stories.”
I recently returned from Alaska, where I’ve been reporting a similar story, about the protection of a famous wolf pack in Denali National Park, the Toklat group. Like Yellowstone wolves, the Toklat wolves are protected within the boundaries of the park, but with Alaska being one of those states that manages its own wolf populations, once they leave park boundaries, trappers are allowed to trap, snare, or shoot them within a few miles of the park road, where an estimated 75,000 report seeing wolves every year.
Alaska’s wolf control program in general is pretty radical, with state-funded biologists authorized to poison, trap, snare, and shoot wolves, or, in two of its most controverisal predator-control methods, to track them with airplanes and “ambush” them, or follow lactating females to their dens, where biologists hook entire litters of puppies and shoot them in the head. Under former governor Tony Knowles, wolves have also been sterilized through tubal ligation, an exorbitantly expensive practice that required tracking them by helicopter, tranquilizing them, and taking them to area veterinarians for the procedure. Wolf control in Alaska is a white hot right now, what with Sarah Palin in the news, but I’ve been tracking the Toklat story since I worked in the park as a backcountry ranger in the late 1990s and have been following the wolves—and the characters clashing over them—ever since.
Like Yellowstone wolves, the Toklat pack fascinates and absorbs people. Assistant Superintendent Philip Hooge told me that visitors will see a particular member on the park road and have such a life-altering experience that, back home in Ohio or Florida, they’ll call park headquarters and ask about the wolf months later. When they hear that “their wolf” has been trapped just outside the park boundary, they’re on the phone again—only this time incredulous that the park service would allow the state government to decide whether or not such an important animal should live or die.
Wolf control is a different issue up in Alaska, but not really. What people are fighting over in both places is sanctity. To trappers and hunters in the last frontier, like ranchers and sportsmen in the Western states, wolves represent a threat to their traditional way of life. To environmentalists, wolf advocates, and those people lucky enough to have chanced upon them in the wild, they symbolize a link to purity and wilderness—some would even say God.
It’ll be interesting to see how long the wolf debate continues; in Alaska it shows no sign of slowing. I tend to agree with Alaska Board of Game Commissioner Cliff Judkins, who says, “I think the controversy will go on until there’s no hunting in Alaska at all.”
(Look out for Senior Editor Tracy Ross' forthcoming story "Dogs of War," about Alaska's Toklat wolfpack, in the Dec./Jan. issue of BACKPACKER).