Will the wolf survive?
Associated Press Writer
PRAY, Mont. ” Just outside Yellowstone National Park, where forest gives way to farmland, the debate over whether gray wolves should remain on the endangered species list takes a back seat to the brutal realities of nature.
With the predators pushing down from the mountains and onto cattle ranches in Pray and the surrounding Paradise Valley, the killing of wolves has already begun.
Seven times in the last five years, third-generation rancher Randy Petrich shot a wolf for killing or harassing the cattle he runs with his father south of Pray. The family’s spread rises from the tumbling waters of Mill Creek to the rugged edge of the Absaroka Mountains north of Yellowstone ” 2,500 acres directly in the path of young gray wolves pushing out of the park to establish new territories.
“I believe that any wolf on any given night, if there happens to be a calf there, they will kill it,” Petrich said. “In reality, to help us now, we need to be trapping them, shooting them ” as many as possible.”
It took $24 million in federal funds and more than two decades to bring wolves back from near-extinction in the northern Rocky Mountains. After an initial 66 wolves were transplanted from Canada beginning in 1995, an estimated 1,545 now roam Idaho, Montana and Wyoming ” more than enough, federal official say, to justify removing them from the endangered species list.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to do just that within the next several months, opening the way for states to let hunters and trappers kill hundreds of the wild canines. Critics say the agency is moving too fast. They say at least 2,000 to 3,000 wolves are needed to keep them from again disappearing from the American West, something that happened in the mid-1900s following a government eradication program.
For environmentalists, wolves have emerged as the symbol of a broader effort to turn back the clock on more than a century of degradation of Western lands and animals. To others, the wolf is despised as a menace to livestock and wildlife, a glaring example of federal intrusion that prevents property owners from stewarding their land.
But neither the wolves nor ranchers such as Petrich are waiting for a resolution to that argument. In recent years, the number of cattle, sheep and other domestic animals killed by wolves has soared, from 123 in 2000 to 330 this year through early October. With tolerance declining as packs proliferate, the number of wolves killed in response ” by ranchers and federal wildlife agents acting on their behalf ” increased sevenfold in the same period, from 20 to 146.
Under the plan to delist the animal, killing wolves that prey on livestock would give way to hunting or trapping by the general public, to keep wolf numbers low and discourage livestock attacks.
As long as at least 450 wolves survived, the animal would remain fair game. Any fewer and hunting and trapping would be curtailed. If their numbers dropped below 300, they would go back on the endangered list.
Several environmental groups are promising lawsuits to halt delisting. Anticipating court delays, the Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing a backup plan that would loosen restrictions on when wolves could be killed even if they remain on the endangered list. States could take out entire packs if they take a substantial toll on game animals such as elk ” wolves’ natural prey.
Wildlife advocacy groups say either plan sets the stage for a slaughter that would push wolves back to the brink in the Rockies. Millions more would have to be spent to rebuild the population yet again, they say.
“This is all about wolf killing,” said Doug Honnold, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, which is opposed to the federal proposal. “This approach of managing wolves to the knife-edge where they say the population would be at risk of extinction is simply crazy.”
Federal wildlife officials offer a paradoxical reasoning for their bid to remove the animal from the endangered list. To survive in the Rockies, they say, wolves must be hunted and killed.
By reclassifying them as “big-game,” wolves could emerge from centuries of persecution and find a niche along other regularly hunted predators such as mountain lions and black bears. Those predators, too, were once at risk of disappearing but rebounded after their status changed from predators that could be shot on sight to big-game animals with limits on how many can be hunted.
Similarly, if wolves were delisted, states could tailor the number of wolf hunting permits around target population levels.
It’s been six years since the last wolf was relocated in the Northern Rockies, a non-lethal response to livestock damage that was dropped when the population soared. Now if a pack causes problems, the government removes wolves until the problems cease.
“The more of something you have, the less valuable each individual piece becomes,” said Ed Bangs, project leader for wolf recovery in the Rockies for the Fish and Wildlife Service. “If you have more wolves than you have now, it’s really going to start causing a lot of problems.”
Bangs said absent widespread poisoning of wolves ” as seen early last century ” a delisting plan that allows public hunting is unlikely to imperil the overall population. The “wolf control” function now carried out by unlucky ranchers and federal wildlife agents could be transferred to hunters and trappers, he said.
But some wolf experts say managing wolves is not so simple. David Mech, a University of Minnesota researcher considered one of the world’s leading experts on wolf behavior, predicted populations in the Northern Rockies could hold steady or keep expanding if they prove too smart for hunters.
Since reintroduction, wolf numbers have increased 20 to 30 percent a year as the animals thrived in a habitat flush with elk, moose and other prey after decades without wolves. Even where entire packs were taken out to curb livestock kills, new packs have quickly filled the gap.
Petrich’s tale offers testimony to that resiliency. The seven he killed ” plus another taken out by a fellow rancher and two more shot by federal wildlife agents ” were all from a single group, the Mill Creek pack. Each time wolves were killed, the pack’s numbers quickly rebounded and the killing of livestock resumed, according to federal monitoring data.
In recent weeks, Petrich has seen fresh wolf tracks almost every morning in the snow and mud around his pastures. Some were within a half-mile of where he lives with his wife and three children.
Although his wolf kills have earned praise from fellow ranchers, Petrich shrugs off the attention, saying he shot the wolves out of necessity, to protect his ranch and his family.
“This is something we’re going to have to keep doing,” he said. “I didn’t ask for this. … We’re just going to have to cope with it however we can.”
Managing Mother Nature: Elk-eating wolves raise debate on wolf management
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