When it comes to predator management, some promises seem made to be broken.
To give Bowhunter readers some perspective on the volatile issue of wolf management in the U.S., I have asked Dr. Dave, a retired wildlife professor at West Virginia University, and Conservation Editor for Bowhunter since 1971, to summarize and comment on the issue. -- Dwight Schuh, Editor
The plan sounded all too simple -- introduce wolves back into the Yellowstone ecosystem, and when they reach a certain number, states will take over wolf management. That was the rhetoric back in 1995 when the battle began over the reintroduction of wolves. Opponents of the plan were skeptical, and today their fears are being realized.
Originally, the plan stated that wolves would be removed from the Endangered Species List when Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming had maintained 30 breeding pairs and 300 wolves for three consecutive years. However, those numbers were reached in 2002, and six years later, with more than 1,500 wolves and 100 breeding pairs in those three states, wolves remain on the Endangered Species List.
Actually, after much political wrangling and many court delays, wolves were finally removed from the Endangered Species List in March 2008. Each state developed a management plan that was approved by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). With the delisting, the three states were to administer management of the wolves. It was six years late, but at least it was going to happen.
Or was it?
Predictably, each state's wolf management plan triggered tremendous debate. Some people favored the plans, while opponents clamored that hunting would wipe out all wolves -- even though the wolf management plans stated that when wolf numbers dropped, hunting would be stopped. That sounds logical, but the fact is, animal-rights groups and many individuals oppose the killing of any wolves. Period.
Of course, none came out and said that. Instead, they argued in court that the Wyoming plan allowed too much hunting and also that there was no proof that wolves in the three states were interbreeding. A lack of interbreeding, they said, could create genetically isolated populations that could not sustain themselves. A federal court in Montana agreed, halted the delisting, and put all plans for wolf management scheduled for the fall of 2008 on hold.
As I write this, the USFWS is asking the court to revisit the delisting decision. Even so, do not expect anything positive in the near future. Animal-rights groups want to see 5,000 wolves in the Yellowstone ecosystem before hunting plans are implemented. It is doubtful that such numbers are even possible. The annual increase of wolves in the three-state area has been 24 percent, but this past September it was noted that wolf numbers dropped (by 60) for the first time since their release. A disease outbreak was one possible explanation. Could it be that the habitat will not support any more wolves?
Bottom line is that biologists in the three states and in the USFWS agree that (1) wolves there are not endangered, and (2) some harvest could be beneficial. That has not happened, and it may be years, if ever, before states can implement sensible wolf management.
Everywhere wolves exist in the U.S., courts are overruling biological decisions. The USFWS granted the Wisconsin DNR 43 wolf depredation permits. The Humane Society of the United States intervened, but their injunction was stopped because the western Great Lakes gray wolf population was delisted from the Endangered Species List.
What followed was the same scenario seen in the Yellowstone ecosystem. On September 30, 2008, a federal judge put the gray wolf in the Upper Midwest back on the Endangered Species List, thus taking wolf management out of the hands of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota. An estimated 4,000 wolves live in that region, and state biologists have long sought a way to manage them. The USFWS says that wolves have recovered there, while attorneys for the groups that filed the lawsuit worry that hunting will decimate numbers.
Few issues stimulate more emotion than wolf control by aerial gunning. During the recent presidential election, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin took a bashing in the press for supporting the control of wolves in Alaska by aerial shooting in an effort to increase moose numbers in some areas. Of course, groups opposed to such shooting maintain that no data support that approach. Indeed, such data are difficult to obtain. However, if you go to http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=5791&page=35, and then Chapter 5, you will find an interesting discussion concerning wolf predation on moose.
In an August referendum, the citizens of Alaska voted to continue using aerial shooting of wolves in select areas to increase moose numbers. But it wasn't easy, and regardless of promises made about wolf management, it never will be.