Gray wolves (Canis lupus) have been persecuted in the U.S. since the arrival of Europeans. By the 20th century, they had been driven to near-extinction. Narrowly pulled back from the brink by endangered species protections and reintroductions in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the 1990s, they are one of North America’s greatest conservation success stories.
Wolf recovery has had huge cultural resonance. Most Americans love wolves. Gas station t-shirts and tchotchkes featuring the species have become a fixture of kitsch Americana—a testament to our collective love for these charismatic canids.
Still, antipathy has persisted in some quarters. Now, state legislation threatens the Northern Rockies population, concentrated in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming with smaller numbers dispersed across California, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Utah.
Motivated by livestock and big game hunting interests, Idaho and Montana recently enacted a series of new laws that allow for the aggressive hunting of wolves. Supporters erroneously claim that the predators threaten the livelihood of ranchers and wreak havoc on elk herds.
“[People] don’t understand the truth of what wolves do. It’s not their fault. The universities and media have brainwashed them at so many levels,” insists Steve Alder, executive director of Idaho for Wildlife, a controversial hunting advocacy organization.
Conservationists counter that this sort of antagonism is rooted in a superstitious, ideological dislike for wolves that doesn’t square with the reality of their impact. Data strongly indicates that the complaints by hunting and agricultural interest groups are exaggerated.
Predation on livestock by wolves is relatively low and elk populations are stable. In Idaho, between July 2019 and July 2020, there were only 102 confirmed livestock kills, with 28 more considered probable. Montana saw 238 confirmed kills in 2020. Both states host millions of cattle, sheep, and other ruminants, and compensate ranchers for each confirmed loss. Elk herds are thriving, with around 136,000 animals in Montana and 120,000 in Idaho. Most hunting districts meet or exceed their population goals.
“There are no data that would suggest that conflicts exist at such a level that a massive massacre of gray wolves is indicated,” said ecologist Mike Phillips, who headed the early efforts to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park and later served as a Democratic senator for Montana. “They’re ecologically illiterate.”
“Wolves have self-regulated their populations for millennia based on prey availability, habitat, and competitors,” added Michelle Lute, a conservation manager with Project Coyote, an organization that works to promote coexistence between humans and wildlife. “We just don’t need to manage them.”
Wolves in the Northern Rockies were taken off the Endangered Species list in 2008 and 2009 but these decisions were challenged, resulting in relisting. “Every time that they’ve been delisted, the states have liberalized killing of wolves,” Lute observed. Now, a decade after the final delisting in 2011 in a rider to a budget bill, Idaho and Montana are ramping up their efforts to drastically kill off the species. Lute and others who monitor the situation are concerned that the draconian new laws will reverse decades of wolf population recovery.
In April, Montana’s SB 314 set a goal of reducing the 800 to 1,200 wolves in the state to just 15 breeding pairs. The bill authorizes the unlimited take of wolves under one license, use of bait, and hunting on private lands even at night using artificial light. Additional legislation allows for the use of snares, extends the trapping season by a month, and establishes a scheme for reimbursement of costs associated with hunting wolves—essentially legalizing bounty hunting. A bill to put wolves on the predator list, which would allow for hunting without a license, failed to pass, as did another that would have increased the number of farmers on the Fish and Wildlife Commission, the body responsible for regulating hunting in the state, and thus biasing it in favor of agricultural interests.
In May, Idaho passed a bill that allows for year-round hunting of wolves on private property, no bag limits, and the use of private contractors. Extreme methods such as tracking wolves using all-terrain vehicles and dogs as well as the use of snares and bait are now permitted as well. The bill also substantially increases funding for the state’s Wolf Depredation Control Board, established in 2014. The board is expected to utilize contractors in the bid to reduce the state’s approximately 1,500 animals to only 150, the bare minimum allowed under its 2002 wolf management plan. These new laws take management out of the hands of wildlife agencies typically tasked with overseeing wolf hunting practices—it’s now largely legislative rather than regulatory.
“The biologists and wildlife managers now have zero say in how wolves should be hunted and trapped, even though those are the people appointed to make those decisions,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is leading a coalition of environmental and animal welfare groups in opposing the new laws.
Some of the hunting techniques legal in Montana and Idaho are typically restricted to animals such as coyotes, foxes, and bobcats—categorized as predatory wildlife or furbearers. These species are not afforded the same protections as big game animals. Conservationists fear that this may incentivize the targeting of wolves in what are known as predator derbies or killing contests. Participants compete to determine who can kill the most, or the largest, predatory animals. In some cases, animals have been intentionally run over by snowmobiles or ATVs. Contests sponsored by Idaho for Wildlife in 2013 and 2015 targeted wolves in addition to coyotes, though no wolves were ultimately killed.
Even if these more extreme events are averted, the planned decimation of wolf populations will almost certainly set off a torrent of deleterious effects. Wolves are an essential control for herbivore populations, removing weak and sick animals—they likely minimize chronic wasting disease in elk and deer populations, for example. This is contrary to false assertions made by some big game hunting organizations that wolves have negatively impacted the availability of deer and elk to hunters.
Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, thinks that perceptions of diminishing elk populations may simply be due to anecdotal evidence, with hunters not finding elk in certain locations because they have simply moved rather than been eaten by wolves.
Wolves do influence the movements of elk, a phenomenon vividly illustrated in Yellowstone following reintroduction in 1995. Because wolves kept elk herds on the run, the herbivores were not able to overgraze willow, cottonwood, and aspen saplings along streambanks. This allowed the plants to rebound, attracting beavers, which in turn altered the course of the waterways by building dams and helping to slow erosion. So, too, the reduction of coyotes by wolves and the food provided by the remnants of their prey allowed the return of other small predator species. While some parts of the park have not recovered as well as others, biologist and wolf conservationist David Parsons said the effects were clearly significant for the ecosystem.
All that could be in jeopardy if the plans to dramatically reduce wolf populations come to fruition. According to an annual report produced by the Yellowstone Wolf Project, four of the park’s wolves were killed in Montana and Idaho during the 2019 hunting season when they wandered outside park boundaries. With the park’s population hovering around 100, even relatively small numbers of wolf fatalities could have destabilizing effects.
Killing one wolf may decrease the chances of its pack members surviving, especially since hunting during breeding season is now allowed, making it likely that litters will be orphaned. And, ironically, destabilized wolf packs are more likely to target livestock according to some studies. Removing dominant wolves allows for breeding by subdominant pairs that may turn to livestock as easy prey.
Advocates hope to counter the legislation before its full impacts are felt. In May, the Center for Biological Diversity and its partners sent a petition to the Secretary of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service demanding that the Northern Rocky Mountain population of the gray wolf be relisted as threatened or endangered. They also informed the Fish and Wildlife Service that Idaho and Montana should no longer be eligible for funding under the Pittman-Robertson Act, which directs millions of dollars in federal funds to state-level wildlife management.
“That statute states that if they do anything contrary to the conservation purposes of the act, they would not be eligible for funding,” said Zaccardi, who is working on the campaign.
The developments in Idaho and Montana come on the heels of another, equally devastating decision. In November 2020, the Trump administration removed endangered species protections for the Great Lakes population of wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
An aggressive legal campaign by a hunting group resulted in a state-mandated wolf hunt in Wisconsin this February. The hunt wiped out a fifth of the state’s wolf population in a matter of days, killing nearly 100 more wolves than the quota the state set. A lawsuit filed by a coalition of advocacy organizations in January seeks to have protections reinstated. Kristen Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice, said she hopes the case will be heard in the fall. In the meantime, she and her colleagues are fending off attempts by the National Rifle Association and the Safari Club to have the suit dismissed.
Some 1.8 million comments on the Great Lakes delisting decision underscore public opposition. The majority of Idaho residents who commented on their states’ new laws were against them as well. A public comment forum on the Montana legislation is slated for June 30.
“We have to listen to our citizens who say ‘we value them intrinsically.’ They have a right to live beyond their use to anybody else,” said Lute. The fate of the species once again hinges on the strength of this belief.
Richard Pallardy is a Chicago-based writer who has written for such publications as Discover, Vice, and Science Magazine.