Do wolves deserve legal protection? That’s the question posed by a new bill making its way through Congress.
On January 17, a bipartisan group of senators introduced S. 164, which would strip gray wolves of their protections under the Endangered Species Act in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Besides allowing those four states to set their own rules on hunting and trapping wolves, the bill, dubbed the "War on Wolves Act" by its opponents, would block legal challenges to those new regulations.
While the S. 164 would affect four states, much of the coverage of the bill has focused on Wyoming due to its contentious history with wolves. In 2013, the last year that Wyoming was permitted to manage it’s own wolf population, hunting was regulated in just 15% of the state. In the remaining 85%, dubbed the “predator area,” hunters could legally kill an unlimited number of wolves, by any method, without a license. That changed in 2014, when a federal judge deemed Wyoming’s conservation rules insufficient and ordered the state to continue to extend ESA protections to its wolf population.
Led by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, the proponents of the bill now believe that wolves have recovered and their management should be left to the states. There’s no doubt that Wyoming’s wolf population has bounced back: An annual monitoring report released last April estimated that there were approximately 382 of the predators, the highest since the animals were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995.
Wolf advocates, however, say that number isn’t high enough to survive an unregulated hunt. Timothy Preso, an attorney for Earthjustice who has challenged Wyoming’s wolf rules in the past, believes that the bill could cause serious harm to the state’s wolf population, potentially wiping out all wolves in the unprotected part of their range.
“Millions come to Wyoming each year to experience a wild landscape, and the howl of a wolf in the backcountry is an unforgettable part of that experience. In fact, the Yellowstone region is the best place in the world to see a wolf in the wild,” Preso said. “Americans need to recognize that something important is at stake and speak out against this threat to wolves.”
Jim Catlin, founder of Wild Utah Project, also believes that S. 164 poses a serious threat. Catlin, a land planning expert, was one of almost 50 scientists who signed a letter opposing the species’ delisting in 2002.
“Passing such a bill will negate and miss lessons learned in how to live with wolves. Smart grazers working with sheep have developed intensive managements that mimic methods used a hundred years ago,” he wrote in an email. “There are excellent examples in Idaho and Wyoming.”
As Catlin points out, wolves help regulate their entire ecosystem by controlling the number of elk and other plant consumers. Too many grazers leads to too much consumption of willows and aspen; the loss of these trees, in turn, has negative consequences on stream health and bird and fish populations.
“Americans value good stewardship and value our remarkable wildlife. Our communities depend on watersheds where wildlife is a part of their health and function,” said Catlin. “Passage of this bill would show great disrespect to these American values.”
However, not all wolf researchers agree with Catlin’s conclusions. L. David Mech, a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota, has devoted a large portion of his career to studying the American wolf. He believes that the populations in question recovered a long time ago.
In an article published in The Wildlife Society News in 2013, Mech explained why he doesn’t think hunting wolves in the unprotected section of Wyoming would put the species in danger.
“Very few wolves inhabit that area because of their constant conflict with livestock, so biologically nearly all of that portion of Wyoming is inconsequential to Wyoming’s wolf population. However, in principle (wildlife management is primarily people management, remember?), the idea that wolf taking would be unrestricted in such a large portion of Wyoming has been unacceptable for many wolf advocates,” he wrote.
When asked about the potential consequences of the bill on the rest of the ecosystem, Mech said, “Nothing consequential except fewer livestock and dogs killed.”
As a compromise, Mech proposes creating sanctuaries for wolves that are free from public taking.
“Such sanctuaries could provide buffer zones around national parks and perhaps reduce the number of park wolves killed just outside [Yellowstone],” he writes.