Gray Wolves

photo by hkuchera

The gray wolf, a keystone predator whose native range stretches across North America, is an integral link in the food chain of the ecosystems it inhabits. Wolves regulate prey populations, thereby playing a pivotal role in maintaining ecosystem function. When recolonizing vacant niches by natural means or through reintroduction, wolves indirectly restore plant communities, benefitting a full suite of species.

When European settlers spread across the continent, they sought to eradicate wolves out of an overblown fear for personal safety and livestock predation. This continued into the first half of the 20th century, when government bounties encouraged killing wolves by any means. Millions of gray wolves were trapped, poisoned, and shot during this time, until they were nearly wiped out throughout the contiguous 48 states.

These culling programs have left a legacy of wolf persecution, feeding an anti-predator bias that continues to influence wolf management decisions. The undeserved fear and hatred toward wolves is based upon myths and falsehoods. Wolves hunt ungulates, and unless human-caused loss of habitat and wild prey species reduce their hunting options, they do not generally pose a problem to livestock or human safety.

In the early 1970s, Americans recognized that gray wolves’ perilously low population levels put them on a path to extinction, and in 1974 wolves across the lower 48 states were listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Through careful management efforts, gray wolf populations slowly grew, and the return of wolves to Yellowstone, central Idaho, and elsewhere has been among America’s greatest conservation victories. Though still at a fraction of their original population, over 5,000 gray wolves in the contiguous 48 states now occupy a small portion of their historic range.

Without the protections provided by the ESA, gray wolves could not resume their critical ecological role in wild America. However, their slowly growing numbers have been used as a reason to prematurely disqualify them from federal protection.

Even though many scientists agree that their recovery is far from complete, there have been ongoing attempts in recent years to eliminate federal protections for gray wolves. Over the past two decades, both Congress and the Department of the Interior have tried several times to delist gray wolves, but most of those efforts failed to pass or were struck down by the courts. The ESA requires that delisting decisions be based only on sound science, but these attempts failed to adhere to that mandate.

Currently, gray wolves are federally protected in the contiguous 48 states except the Northern Rocky Mountain region, which includes Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and northcentral Utah). The Northern Rocky Mountain distinct population segment of wolves, except those in Wyoming, were most recently delisted via a 2011 law that required the secretary of the interior to reissue a 2009 delisting rule that a court had previously struck down. Wolves in Wyoming were most recently delisted in 2017, when an appeals court reversed a district court’s decision that had restored ESA protections for gray wolves in Wyoming.

Removing gray wolves from protection under the ESA places management of the species in the hands of state agencies, and many states have demonstrated their eagerness to institute wolf hunting seasons that permit cruel killing methods. Wolves that are not protected by the federal government have legally been run over by snowmobiles and ATVs, poisoned, snared, caught in barbaric steel-jawed traps, incinerated in their dens with gas or dynamite, and gunned down from aircraft. Many state governments cling to the myth of wolves as monsters, and are quick to encourage slaughter by any means.

Lethal control is not the only threat gray wolves face. Due to expanding human populations, gray wolves now struggle to survive in fragmented habitats that are in close proximity to human settlements. This fragmentation threatens the genetic health of gray wolf populations due to inbreeding and increases the likelihood of human-wolf conflicts. Furthermore, climate change will likely exacerbate habitat degradation, prey shortages, and other survival challenges.

Many studies and polls show that a majority of Americans want wolves protected and humanely treated. In addition, wolf-watching tourism brings immense benefits to local communities. Ongoing protection under the ESA benefits both humans and gray wolves, and is crucial to maintain the fragile gains that wolves have made and to increase the likelihood of their future survival.

Recent Developments

AWI has fought against ongoing attempts in Congress to delist gray wolves. In the 2017-2018 session of Congress, several bills and amendments were introduced to remove federal protections from wolves. These bills directed the secretary of the interior to strip federal protections from gray wolves in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin and would have opened the door for aggressive state hunting and trapping policies. Some bills went further, attempting to delist wolves across the contiguous United States. Furthermore, all these legislative attacks would have eliminated judicial review, ensuring that the delisting could never be challenged in court.

AWI lobbied against the following unsuccessful legislative attempts to remove gray wolf protections:

  • S. 1514, the Hunting Heritage and Environmental Legacy Preservation (HELP) for Wildlife Act, introduced by Senators Barrasso (R-WY), Boozman (R-AR), Capito (R-WV), Cardin (D-MD), Baldwin (D-WI), and Klobuchar (D-MN).
  • H.R.424/S.164, the “War on Wolves Act,” introduced by Rep. Peterson (D-MN) and Senators Johnson (R-WI), Barrasso (R-WY), Enzi (R-WY), Baldwin (D-WI), and Klobuchar (D-MN).
  • H.R. 6784, the Manage our Wolves Act, introduced by Rep. Duffy (R-WI).
  • Policy riders attached to funding bills for the Department of the Interior for fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

When it passed the ESA, Congress recognized that politicians do not have the necessary scientific expertise to determine what is best for an imperiled species. These recent attempts to legislate species delisting decisions are antithetical to the intent of the law. Courts were also made a partner in the ESA listing and delisting process by serving as forums for addressing disputes over decisions. One of the core tenets of the ESA is the “citizen suit provision,” which allows for legal challenges to the government’s decisions about species management. Removing this oversight of gray wolf management eliminates a crucial, democratic tool that is guaranteed by one of our bedrock conservation laws, and sets the stage for similar assaults in the future. AWI will continue to fight these types of legislative attacks on wolves and the ESA.