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Wyoming: As Wolves Return to the West, Greens Go to Court

The goal of environmental groups should be to find ways that humans can coexist with carnivores. Endless lawsuits do the opposite.

by Arthur Middleton,
Jackson, Wyoming
as printed in the Wall Street Journal

October 12, 2012

Wyoming – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this month handed over its wolf-management efforts to the state of Wyoming, leaving all three northern Rockies states, including Montana and Idaho, to manage wolves on their own. Environmental groups—including Earthjustice, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity—have vowed to sue Fish and Wildlife, arguing that its action has put wolves “back on the brink.”

Another lawsuit will not advance conservation. With the wolf population secure in many wild areas, incessant litigation is only alienating rural westerners and compounding their antipathy for wolves and the federal government. Ultimately, this battle risks undermining the statutory basis of endangered-species conservation.

When I moved from the East Coast to Wyoming five years ago to conduct research on wolves and elk, I had only an abstract sense of the human fight over wolves that was going on in the Rockies. One bright June morning, I put a tracking collar on a lanky male wolf. Six weeks later, I was pulling that collar back off his bloated carcass. After killing a beef calf from a nearby ranch, he had been shot by a federal predator-control agent. In later years, I lost other study wolves because they damaged things that people cared about.

Wolves and other large carnivores are challenging to live with. Environmental groups often understate the challenges, and ranchers and hunters often overstate them. But the bottom line is that these predators can kill cattle, sheep or the family dog, and they can also reduce populations of big game that are valuable to rural economies.

The fact that large carnivores—including some, like bears, that can be extremely dangerous to humans—conflict with human interests is itself unsurprising. It’s the main reason they were extirpated across most of the U.S. a century ago. What’s surprising is that even in 2012, environmental groups still have not addressed the root of the problem. After struggling for decades to bring these animals back, and spending a great deal of money in the process, they can offer few practical, collaborative ways of helping people live with them. Instead, they resort to the coercion of the courtroom.

In the case of the wolf, this outdated model of conservation advocacy has begun to backfire. Last year, regional resentment of incessant litigation led to an unprecedented congressional intervention—a bipartisan measure that sidestepped the Endangered Species Act to strip federal protection for wolves in Montana and Idaho. But wolf advocates press on, claiming that science indicates that wolves remain in peril.

These claims are disingenuous. There is little doubt among biologists that states in the region—including Wyoming—will maintain viable wolf populations. Earlier concerns about possible reproductive problems associated with low genetic diversity have been laid to rest by peer-reviewed study. Many critics of state management take exception to wolf hunting and policies such as allowing livestock-killing wolves to be shot. But wolves’ high rates of reproduction and their ability to colonize new habitats make them unusually resilient.

We know this in part because wolves have thrived despite such management since their recovery began almost two decades ago. When the federal Fish and Wildlife Service transplanted 66 Canadian wolves to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996, any wolves that harmed livestock could be killed despite their then-endangered status.

Even so, by 2002, the Northern Rockies wolf population exceeded the federal recovery goal of 300 wolves in 30 packs. In the decade since then, Fish and Wildlife has killed about 7% of wolves annually (1,200 in total over the years)—and yet the population has grown steadily and now exceeds 1,700.

Environmentalist groups not only have ignored clear evidence of wolves’ resilience. These groups have also oversold a story that wolves heal degraded landscapes by keeping their herbivorous prey on the move. But previous studies suggesting that wolves might scare elk from overbrowsing aspen and willow communities have been refuted by new, more comprehensive research. Clearly, wolves make ecosystems wild again, but mythologizing their benefits does little to build support for them in rural communities.

The real question is not whether wolves will persist. It is how far they will expand into rural landscapes where people live and work. The crude, inflammatory demand—often embodied in environmental litigation—that communities accept the costs and risks of living with these predators might be fair if our country had a proven record of coexisting with large carnivores. But we don’t. For those who seek expansive populations of wolves and other large carnivores, a key step is to identify those landscapes where human-carnivore coexistence can take root.

Some small but exemplary efforts are pointing the way. A new nonprofit, People and Carnivores, works with livestock producers to develop risk-management strategies. These include deterrent electric fencing, livestock guardian dogs, range riders, and new grazing strategies that are better suited to patterns of wolf predation and livestock vulnerability.

The grass-roots group Blackfoot Challenge in northwest Montana is using approaches such as the routine removal of livestock carcasses so that they will not attract predators, community-based wolf-activity monitoring, and a system of phone alerts about bear sightings. The group has already reported a reduction in human-carnivore conflicts.

Both projects seek to work with, not against, the government agencies that manage large carnivores. Their findings suggest that killing large carnivores may not be the only option when they come out of the mountains into rural communities, and they highlight the empathy and collaborative spirit required to make progress in reducing conflicts.

No single model will apply everywhere. Some will prove too expensive or labor-intensive, and none is likely to eliminate the need for lethal wildlife management. Combative lawsuits and facile, Web-based advocacy campaigns attract donors’ attention more readily than intensive, on-the-ground collaborations that show only modest and incremental gains. But pouring ever more conservation capital into the old, litigious model only promises to further erode tolerance for wolves and political support for endangered-species conservation.

Mr. Middleton recently received a Ph.D. in ecology at the University of Wyoming, studying wolf-elk interactions in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, and is now a fellow at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

A version of this article appeared October 13, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: As Wolves Return to the West, Greens Go to Court.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]

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