Two years ago, hiking in Yellowstone’s backcountry on the Mary Mountain trail, I saw the first wolf of my life. It was an incredible moment and one that I will always remember. The lone wolf – which I later found out was probably from the Canyon pack – trotted across the trail in front of me and up a hill, then stopped and turned at the top to look back at me. We gazed at each other for a long moment before it then trotted down the hill and across the Hayden Valley. I watched it for a long time until I could hardly see it in the distance. How lucky I am, I thought.
More than any other species, I think wolves bring about the deepest cultural response from people. They are a symbol of many different, closely-held beliefs and core values, and often act as a surrogate for how we, as individuals and as a society, view public lands, wild species, and the degree to which people should or should not control them. Whether revered, loved, feared or hated, wolves make us think, and wolves make us feel — passionately. And they make us act, because of those feelings and the core values that they speak to in each of us, particularly here in the Interior West.
Earlier this year, you may have heard that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) removed federal protection from Wyoming wolves. Yesterday the Sierra Club, with some of our conservation partners, challenged that decision, asking the federal government to retain Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for wolves in Wyoming.
To be sure, wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies is a success story, and proves the importance of federal protection for bringing species back from the edge of extinction. Our goal, and that of the Endangered Species Act, is to recover species so that they can survive without special protections. In this case however, handing wolf management over to the state of Wyoming, with its seriously flawed management plan, undermines wolf recovery progress both in Wyoming and across the region.
The state’s plan is virtually the same plan that the USFWS and federal courts have rejected multiple times before – and for good reason. Wyoming has stubbornly refused to turn away from its obsession with instituting a dual classification for wolves under state management, in which wolves are classified as ‘trophy game’ in the areas around Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, and as ‘predator’ in the remaining part of the state. While hunting in the ‘trophy game’ area is at least regulated by the state, wolves in the ‘predator’ zone – approximately 85% of Wyoming – can be killed by anyone for any reason, by any means – without a license. Wolves and their pups can be shot on sight, chased to exhaustion, gassed in their dens, or worse – with no regulation at all. When wolves were briefly delisted in Wyoming a few years ago, it was open season on wolves before federal protection had to be restored. The majority of wolves in Wyoming now live in the trophy game zone; however, currently at least eight wolf packs live in the designated ‘predator’ zone. Chances of survival for these wolves or for establishing any packs in the future outside the ‘trophy game’ zone around the national parks are virtually nil, which USFWS admits.
A second serious flaw in the latest version of the state’s plan, and reason for our decision to fight for continued federal protection for Wyoming wolves, is that the plan fails to secure the connectivity needed to allow wolves in Northwest Wyoming to breed with wolves elsewhere in the region. Wolves in the Yellowstone area are geographically isolated from other populations; in order to ensure the long-term viability of wolves in the Yellowstone region, they need to be able to disperse and breed with other wolf populations , such as those living in the vast wildlands of Central Idaho. In a flawed attempt to address connectivity requirements for removing federal protection, Wyoming added a ‘flex zone’ in southern Teton County to its management plan; however, it only grants wolves a measure of protection for 4.5 months of the year as ‘trophy game’ (and they can still be legally hunted during that time) – the other 7.5 months of the year they are classified as predators and can be killed on sight by anyone by any method without a license. Studies have shown – and the USFWS admits—that wolves frequently breed outside of this 4-month window—a fact that must be reflected in Wyoming’s plan if wolves are to have a future in the region.
Additionally, since wolves in Idaho and Montana were stripped of Endangered Species Act protections by Congress in 2011 and management turned over to the states, wolf management in Idaho and Montana has become increasingly aggressive and hostile toward wolves. As one example, Montana did not allow trapping of wolves in 2011, but has approved trapping in its 2012 hunting season regulations. Taken together with Wyoming’s extreme plan, there is no guarantee that the states will maintain a Northern Rockies wolf population that is viable over the long term, given the clear hostility toward having wolves on the landscape that we have seen thus far.
Sierra Club is extremely concerned about the risk to Wyoming wolves, and the entire Northern Rockies wolf population, if Wyoming’s current state management plan is allowed to persist. Until Wyoming comes up with a management plan that truly values wolves as having a legitimate place on the landscape, and as a valued wild species rather than vermin that can be shot on sight in large areas of the state without any regulation whatsoever, we must keep them under federal protection.