Cat Urbigkit: Ending Federal Wolf Oversight, or Permanent Protection?

in Cat Urbigkit/Column

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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist

As Wyoming nears the time that federal oversight of its wolf management program is set to expire, wolf advocates are fervently campaigning to jerk management authority away from state wildlife departments in favor of federal protection for the species.

This is the 10-year anniversary of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) decision to remove Wyoming’s gray wolves from the list of federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act.

Unfortunately, Wyoming wasn’t able to celebrate its success with wolf recovery back then, as litigation soon placed the state’s wolf population back under federal protection.

It took another five years before a federal appeals court finally ruled that FWS was correct that wolves in Wyoming had recovered and no longer required federal protection. At last, in April 2017, Wyoming regained its management authority for wolves.

Federal Oversight

While wolves were under state management for the last five years, the FWS has performed an oversight role that is due to expire soon. With about a month remaining to the end of FWS’s “post-delisting monitoring period,” state officials must file one more annual report on its wolf population management and monitoring program with federal officials.

The goal of post-delisting monitoring is to ensure that the recovered species does not deteriorate, according to FWS, “and if an unanticipated decline is detected, to take measures to halt the decline to avoid relisting the species as threatened or endangered.”

When it announced the decision to delist Wyoming’s wolves, FWS said it would reinitiate a status review to determine if relisting is warranted:

(1) If the wolf population falls below the minimum recovery level of 10 breeding pairs or 100 wolves in Wyoming statewide (including Yellowstone National Park (YNP) and the Wind River Indian Reservation) at the end of any 1 year;

(2) If the wolf population segment in Wyoming excluding YNP and the Wind River Indian Reservation falls below 10 breeding pairs or 100 wolves at the end of the year for 3 consecutive years;

(3) If the wolf population in Wyoming falls below 15 breeding pairs or 150 wolves, including YNP and the Wind River Indian Reservation, for 3 consecutive years; or

(4) If a change in State law or management objectives would significantly increase the threat to the wolf population.

None of those things happened. Wyoming has not changed its management of wolves in Wyoming, and the state’s wolf population has met recovery goals for 20 years. By the end of 2020, Wyoming had at least 327 wolves and 22 breeding pairs, well above the minimum recovery criteria.

But that may not keep wolves from being placed back under federal jurisdiction – possibly with even more stringent management provisions than those in place for decades after wolves were released in Yellowstone.

Emergency

As the Wyoming Game & Fish Department prepares what should be its final report to federal officials on wolf management in Wyoming, escaping the unneeded federal oversight of its successful wolf management efforts, wolf advocates have mounted a comprehensive campaign to have wolves throughout the Northern Rockies placed back under federal protection, and have advocated for more stringent protections than those associated with the experimental population status that accompanied the release of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s.

Citing changes in state laws in Montana and Idaho that provide for expansive wolf take, wolf advocates were able to convince FWS to conduct a 12-month status review of wolves in the Northern Rockies. But with a federal court decision placing wolves across most of the nation back under federal protection last month, wolf advocates are now calling for an “emergency relisting” in all three Rocky Mountain states, Wyoming included.

Instead of celebrating Wyoming’s successful track record in maintaining its wolf population above recovery goals, wolf advocates still miffed that wolves have dual status in Wyoming are decrying Wyoming’s wolf management as “hostile” and “draconian.”

Dead or Alive?

While wolf advocates spend much time ginning up public outrage over dead wolves, what they don’t do is focus on the fact that wolf recovery is based on live wolves – not dead ones. And the number of live wolves in the region remains far larger than that required by federal wolf recovery criteria.

Since live wolves don’t generate outrage, or increase petition clicks, or result in increased donations to the cause, wolf advocates prefer to focus public attention on dead wolves. Wyoming’s 2021 wolf hunting season in the trophy game area resulted in a harvest of only 32 of the 47-wolf maximum quota before the season closed. That’s draconian?

Despite the public hysteria over changes to state laws which could result in more wolves being taken in Montana, that state’s wolf hunting and trapping seasons closed with 273 wolves taken from the statewide harvest threshold of 450. Montana’s annual wolf harvest varies from 223 to almost 400 wolves “without a demonstrable negative effect on population growth.” How dare they!

Contrary to the claims of “unlimited wolf killing” throughout the Northern Rockies states, each of the three states does regulate wolf harvest. Despite claims that Idaho would kill 90% of its wolf population, Idaho still has more than 1,500 wolves. Wyoming has more than double the number of wolves required for recovery, and Montana’s wolf population has remained 6-8 times larger than recovery targets, with more than 1,100 wolves. But sure, wolves need federal protection from the states?

There is no emergency. That’s a bogus claim based on an unfavorable view of wolf management that allows wolves to be killed. It’s more convenient to claim that wolves are being savagely hunted by wolf-haters rather than give legitimacy to the wide diversity of people who may want to hunt and harvest wolves, or to have state officials managing wolf populations. But that doesn’t generate the level of clicks or donations as claiming that “anti-wolf legislators and extremists” have “stepped up their attacks on these vulnerable animals” while urging the Biden administration to “stop cruel wolf killings.”

The Park’s Non-Controversy

Yellowstone National Park officials complained that 25 wolves inhabiting the park during a portion of the year were killed in hunting seasons in adjacent states (mostly in Montana), yet failed to mention that the remaining park population of 89 wolves is on par with park wolf numbers for more than a decade.

Although the Park Service blamed Montana and its wolf harvest laws for the decrease in the park’s wolf population, history has repeatedly shown that once the wolf population in Yellowstone reaches a certain level, there are expected outcomes: Wolves will kill each other, pup production will be impacted by disease outbreaks, and wolves will seek new ground outside the park. It happens time and again.

The increased wolf harvest adjacent to the park this winter was a predictable result of the wolf population boom that occurred inside Yellowstone in 2020, when the wolf population increased 31% in one year to 123 wolves.

Although Yellowstone’s wolf population has fallen to 89, that number is in line with its population count over the last decade; the park wolf population has stayed in the range of 80-108 wolves with little fluctuation since 2009. Park Service documents indicate that this population level is “likely due to fewer elk in the ecosystem” than in the past, and when the wolf population increases, park officials report wolves losing condition as more wolves vie for meals from a prey base that has declined.

The park’s largest wolf population decline was in 2005, when the wolf population dropped 30% from 171 to 118 wolves, with three packs leaving the park or dissolving, wolves killing other wolves, and diseases killing pups. Just two years later, the park’s population of 124 wolves dropped 27% in one year as wolves killed each other and disease again took its toll on the high-density population.

Although Montana’s wolf harvest near the park increased this winter, the park’s wolf population remains about the same as it has over the last decade – but that doesn’t make the headlines or generate outrage. Only humans killing wolves does that.

Selling a Narrative

Pretending that wolves teeter on the brink of extinction may effective, but it’s not truthful. The three states in the Northern Rockies are managing wolves above federal recovery levels, and worldwide gray wolves are considered a species of least concern by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

While those signing petitions for emergency relisting claim that genetic exchange and connectivity isn’t happening with wolves under state management, the Northern Rockies wolf population has expanded into Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, and Colorado.

Remaining focused on dead wolves is an intentional strategy. If the focus is on the number of live wolves, the story is vastly different than the narrative promoted by wolf advocates.

Wolf advocates want more wolves roaming across a larger landscape, and they don’t want wolves to be killed or actively managed. That doesn’t mean the wolves are biologically threatened or endangered, though they will try to use the Endangered Species Act to get what they desire. The new strategy is to claim that the federal recovery criteria are no longer valid.

It’s clear that we can’t reach a number at which wolf advocates would agree that hunting is acceptable – indeed, some are touting proposals for permanent federal protection for both wolves and grizzly bears.

The Jackson-Hole based Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative has proposed that in the long term, management of wide-ranging species like wolves should be overseen by FWS, much like birds protected by the Migratory Birds Treaty Act. The group wrote to FWS, “Until existing regulatory and management mechanisms can be brought up to speed with modern values and modern science, we conclude that oversight by the federal government, led by the Service, remains necessary.”

Regardless of the naysayers seeking permanent wolf protections, Wyoming should celebrate its success on the 5-year anniversary of the removal of its gray wolves from the list of species federally protected under the Endangered Species Act. We’ve earned it.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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