Gray wolf's success ignites new debate

Government begins to reduce protections

November 26, 2003|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. - The sound of success pierces the cold, still air like a stiletto.

Howls of gray wolves announce their dominance over the food chain from the park's Lamar Valley to the ranches of Montana, less than a decade after wildlife biologists returned them to their traditional habitat.

Bringing wolves back from the brink of extinction is being hailed as an ecological triumph, so much so that the federal government reclassified the animal this year from "endangered" to "threatened." The next step toward removal from the protected species list is for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to transfer responsibility for wolf management to game officials in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, possibly late next year.

"We have achieved biological success. Now we are trying to achieve bureaucratic success," said Ed Bangs, federal wolf recovery coordinator.

Each state submitted a management plan, which was reviewed by a panel of 12 independent scientists. Those critiques were sent back to the states this week and are to be posted on the Fish and Wildlife Service's Web site. Another round of public comment will follow before the agency decides.

"Nobody has officially proposed delisting the wolf yet, but even talk gets people's blood pressure up," Bangs said.

The livestock industry and sportsmen's groups, which have simmered as the wolf population soared from 31 in the mid-1990s to 750, can't wait for return of local control.

On the other side, environmental groups fear that a lack of federal oversight will mean a return to the "shoot, shovel and shut up" mindset that nearly caused the wolf's demise.

"Wolves are an emotionally charged issue, and they have been for centuries," said Douglas Smith, leader of the Yellowstone Wolf Project for the National Park Service. "Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, Romulus and Remus - the attitudes have been there for years."

Bangs and Smith have heard all of the arguments. Bangs came from Alaska in 1988 to lay the groundwork for the restoration program. Smith moved to Yellowstone in 1994 to be part of the restoration program and helped trap the original 31 animals in Canada and release them at the park.

Scientists also released 35 wolves in central Idaho and were prepared to transplant a like number each year for five years. But the wolves' adaptability made that unnecessary.

Last December, biologists announced that for the third consecutive year the Greater Yellowstone area had 30 breeding pairs, a goal that triggered the delisting process.

"We had two times as many wolves as we thought we would and half as many problems as we thought. So it's a good news, better news story," Bangs said.

Not to ranchers in the three states, who have lost 581 sheep and 214 cattle since the reintroduction began.

In newspapers across the region, letters to the editor warn that humans will be targeted by hungry wolves after they devour all the livestock and elk. Wildlife experts say that is preposterous and demagogic. During a legislative hearing this year in Helena, Mont., three dozen speakers demanded immediate relief from a wolf population they said was out of control.

Warren Johnson, a sports outfitter from just outside Yellowstone, said he had waited patiently for a balance between the wolves and the region's elk herd, "but there is no balance. Wolves are decimating our wildlife."

Bangs does not buy the argument: "There are 31,000 mountain lions out West that eat two times as much livestock as wolves. But no one says we need to kill all the mountain lions the way we still have people saying we have to kill all the wolves."

Former Yellowstone naturalist Gary Ferguson, author of the 1996 book Yellowstone Wolves, said the hostility toward the recovery program is all about the perceived meddling of the federal government in local affairs.

"I wonder if there would have been quite the outrage there if the restoration had happened naturally. I think probably not," he said.

Biologists consider the wolves "a keystone species" that affects the health of every other animal in Yellowstone.

When the National Park Service had a strict shoot-on-sight policy for wolves that eliminated all packs by 1926, "we took the food pyramid and just lopped off the top," Smith said. "Wolves are the kings and queens of providing meat to the scavenger population: grizzly bears, ravens, magpies, coyotes and eagles. Every wolf kill benefits at least five other animals, the most we've gotten is 10."

In addition to helping the ecosystem, the wolves also have been a multimillion-dollar boon to the tourism industry. Outfitters that lead snowmobile tours and eagle watches have added wolf itineraries. Visitors with huge spotting scopes take up positions in the Lamar Valley, hoping to watch wolves stalk elk herds in the winter and raise their pups in the spring.

"Wolves are so much like us," Bangs said. "We can see ourselves in them - good and bad - and we project ourselves into them."

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