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The gray wolf's amazing comeback in the northern Rockies is one of America's greatest wildlife success stories. But it may be dangerously short-lived.
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Teleconference: Protecting Wyoming's Wolves

Attorney Tim Preso.  (Bill Campbell)

Managing Attorney Tim Preso discusses the background, history and perspective to Earthjustice's decades-long fight to protect the endangered gray wolf.

Length: 53 min 45 sec
Recorded: October 4, 2012

On August 31, 2012, under intense pressure from Wyoming officials, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would remove endangered species protections for gray wolves in Wyoming, opening most of the state to unlimited killing of the animals.

The move jeopardizes the nation's landmark recovery of wolves in the Northern Rockies. In this recorded telebriefing, Earthjustice Managing Attorney Tim Preso discusses Earthjustice's plans to fight to protect the gray wolves.

The conversation took place on October 4, 2012 and was moderated by National Press Secretary Kari Birdseye.

Audio Transcript:

Kari Birdseye.Kari Birdseye: This Monday, October 1st [2012], marked open season on 328 wolves currently living in Wyoming plus any of the animals that travel out of Yellowstone National Park into that state. Tim, can you start us off by telling us about the legal journey you've been on to protect the wolves?

Tell us about the legal journey to protect the wolves.

Timothy Preso: First, let me echo thanks to all the folks who called in today to hear about our work on behalf of wolves. It's work that we feel very strongly about, and it's great to get an opportunity to discuss it with all of you.

Here in the Northern Rockies region we have this great natural heritage of protected wild lands that are public lands belonging to all Americans, including Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks and surrounding areas, and those areas offer tremendous wildlife and scenery, but for years what the lacked was one of their key original occupants, which was the gray wolf.

Wolves were exterminated from the Northern Rockies region, as throughout much of the northern United States, in the early part of the 20th century, and for decades there were no wolves in the wild in the Northern Rockies, and that changed in the mid-1990s when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made a courageous decision to reintroduce wolves to the region.

Gray wolf. (U.S. FWS)
One of North America's most iconic native predators, the gray wolf used to be found throughout the United Sates.  (FWS)

But from the start there has been controversy over what management was going to govern the wolves once they were on the ground, and our role from the beginning was to try to ensure the strongest possible legal protections for wolves, and the reason was because a lot of the animosity that gave rise to the original extermination of wolves from the region still lingers here.

Livestock interests have no love for wolves as a general matter, and there are a lot of folks who view wolves as competitors for elk that they might hunt and other wild game. And there's great hostility toward the idea of predators taking down game animals even still, so we recognize that human animosity was the greatest threat to wolves. So from the beginning we've been trying to make sure that there were strong legal protections in place to try to make sure that wolves could thrive and recover.

Our legal campaign really hit its crescendo as the federal government in the last few years has moved to get out of the wolf management business and hand wolf management over to state governments—state governments that unfortunately in this region still operate largely at the behest of interests who are hostile to wolves.

Our role from the beginning was to try to ensure the strongest possible legal protections for wolves … to try to make sure that wolves could thrive and recover.

So we have successfully challenged two separate rounds of attempts by the U.S .Fish and Wildlife Service to delist wolves in the Northern Rockies Region. The first time we succeeded because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service simply blew off its own recovery criteria for the wolves, which recognized that you couldn't have just isolated island wolf populations in the Northern Rockies. You needed to have a large interconnected population where individuals could move around between core population areas, and the Service simply ignored that key point about connecting up the populations and said, "We've got enough numbers, so we're good," and we successfully challenged that.

The second time we challenged delisting the issue was really kind of the predecessor to the current issue in that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that Montana and Idaho had adequate plans to manage wolves in a delisted scenario, but the state of Wyoming's plan was not sufficient. It was too extreme in its anti-wolf provisions. So they thought to delist wolves in only Montana and Idaho and leave Wyoming listed, and we pointed out that their own law, the Endangered Species Act, says you've got to list or delist an entire species, not subcomponents of it, and so the courts again overturned the Service's delisting proposal. And both of those cases were really about making sure that we have adequate regulatory frameworks in place to protect wolves once the federal safety net is removed.

The current situation is that after our last legal victory, in the political chaos that ensued, the U.S. Congress delisted wolves in Montana and Idaho, leaving Wyoming as the sole remaining listed population—and that was because Wyoming wolf management laws were so extreme. But Wyoming struck a deal with the Interior Department and made some minor— what we would characterize as more cosmetic than anything else—changes to its wolf management plan. And now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved delisting of wolves in Wyoming as well, which will turn wolf management over to a legal system in Wyoming that is the most hostile to wolves in the Northern Rockies—which is a subject of serious concern. So that's why we're re-engaging on the wolf issue now to try to make sure that Wyoming wolves get the protection that they deserve.

Kari: So Tim, more than 2,000 hunting licenses have been issued in Wyoming since the delisting was official, and the hunting season started on Monday. Already, news reports say that four wolves have been killed in the first four days of the hunting season. What should we expect this season? It goes until October 1st. What should we expect? That all 52 of the wolves that can be shot will be?

What can we expect from this Wyoming hunting season?

Tim: First of all just a minor clarification, the season started October 1st [2012], and we're now in the earliest days of it.

Clearly, there is going to be significant killing of wolves in Wyoming. The state has its wolf management split into different geographic areas, and in the very northwestern corner of the state, in the portion of Wyoming that's outside of Yellowstone National Park, in a relatively narrow area surrounding Yellowstone National Park, there's a limit on the number of wolves that can be killed. And in its first year, Wyoming has set a bag limit of 52 wolves that can be killed in that area.

Yellowstone National Park boundary sign. (Jim Peaco / NPS)
There's a lot of hostile territory that a wolf has to get through in order to move from Yellowstone to other core wolf population areas in the Northern Rockies.  (Jim Peaco / NPS)

But the great bulk of Wyoming, 85 percent, is not in this so-called "trophy area" where there is limited killing. Instead, it's in what's called a "predator zone," in which wolves can be killed by any means throughout the year—no limit on season, no limit on number, no limits on methods of killing. And, as of the delisting time, there were 46 wolves, including 3 breeding pairs that were living in that so-called "predator zone," and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expected that those 46 wolves will be killed. So that's 46 in addition to the 52 that are authorized to be killed in the Wyoming regulated hunting area.

And then there's an additional area, another sliver of the state, which is kind of a middle ground between the "trophy zone" and the "predator zone" which is supposed to be the concept of a "seasonal flex area," meaning that part of the year it's managed as a "trophy zone" with limited hunting and part of the year it's managed as part of the "predator zone."

Unfortunately, if you're a wolf, you probably don't have a calendar to tell you which is which, but as of October 1st, the management in that area was "predator zone" management, meaning anything goes in terms of wolf killing. And that predator management will continue until October 15th, at which point the trophy management will kick in there. But it's questionable how many wolves will still be alive in that zone, and as of the time of the delisting, that zone contained another ten wolves and a single breeding pair.

So basically you've got 52 wolves within the regulated hunting area and 56 wolves in zones that are being managed as shoot-on-sight, anything-goes wolf management. So if wolves are killed as expected in these areas, the mortality of wolves will be in excess of 100 individuals.

Kari: Well, can you explain how Wyoming was able to delist a species to leave a minimum of ten breeding pairs and 100 wolves total in that state, outside of the certain area of Yellowstone and Wind River [Indian] Reservation?

How was Wyoming able to delist gray wolves?

Tim: This really is about politics, not science at this point. The numerical targets for delisting were set back before wolves were reintroduced to the region, and it was essentially a political deal with the state. And what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said is you need to have approximately 300 wolves for a recovered population.

Most scientists would tell you that's an insufficient number, and the scientists that we've been working with say that you need to have really a couple of thousand wolves so that you have a population that's robust enough to have genetic health. You got enough individuals and enough genetic material that's circulating through the population that you don't have inbreeding problems, and they can withstand natural disruptions.

Like, for example, the population within Yellowstone Park, where there's no hunting at all allowed, has itself plummeted, and part of that was due to disease outbreaks, and those can happen in any kind of wild population. So most scientists say you need to have a far larger population than what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has set as its recovery targets in order to have a population that really is recovered and can withstand all the trials and tribulations that affect wildlife species.

But the political deal was struck, and the Service has insisted on adhering to it regardless of whatever science has been brought to bear on the issue. So we're still living under that political deal, and the Service has said that if Wyoming maintains 100 wolves within the so-called "trophy zone," the area just outside Yellowstone National Park, that that population, in conjunction with the population that's in Yellowstone Park will be enough to secure Wyoming's portion of a recovered wolf population.

What we want to do is make sure that we have a legal scheme in place so that wolves can play their ecological role in the Northern Rockies.

We don't agree with that for a lot of reasons. One is that the Yellowstone population has already demonstrated that you can't really rely on it to necessarily produce a reliable number of wolves each year. It had been thought that the Yellowstone population would continue to be a source of a lot of wolves, and certainly there are a significant number of wolves in the park, but this year, we've seen that there are only five breeding pairs in Yellowstone, and that's fewer than in many recent years.

And the other issue is that looking only at numbers only tells part of the story. If we talk about a need for 300 wolves or 100 wolves in Wyoming or 150 wolves in Wyoming, any of these numbers that get thrown around, the other piece of that is if we're going to have a long-term wolf population in the Northern Rockies, we can't have island populations that are cut off from each other—and the northwest Wyoming and Yellowstone Park population is the most isolated population in the Northern Rockies. There's a lot of hostile territory that a wolf has to get through in order to move from Yellowstone to another wolf core population area in the Northern Rockies or vice versa, and that's only going to get worse under state management that turns a lot of that intermediate landscape into a shooting zone.

So there's a significant issue about the numbers, and there's a significant issue about other things that are really important in addition to the numbers, such as genetic connectivity and migration and immigration.

Kari: In the New York Times last weekend author Mary Ellen Hannibal wrote about the cascading effects the gray wolf has on the ecosystem. Can you explain how this factor was important to your work and the importance of wolves on the ecosystem?

What is the importance of wolves to the ecosystem?

Tim: Wolves are an apex predator, meaning that they sit at the top of the food chain, and their activities have impacts all down the food chain below them. You know, the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson famously wrote a paper about the little things that run the world, talking about microbes and insects that make huge differences in ecosystems. But there are also very big things that run the world, and that means large predators that have ripple effects throughout the ecosystem as well—and wolves are certainly one of those.

Beaver lodge on Thorofare Creek in Yellowstone National Park. (Frank Walker / NPS)
Beaver lodge on Yellowstone's Thorofare Creek. Reintroduction of the wolves has led to a cascade of positive effects on the greater ecosysterm.  (Frank Walker / NPS)

One of the things we've seen since the reintroduction of the wolf to the Northern Rockies is a big change in the behavior of their prey species, primarily elk.

Elk, formerly without their historical predator the wolf, would linger in valley bottoms, foraging on streamside vegetation and essentially denude stream banks, which had its own ripple effect to the system. If you don't have robust willow populations along streams in the Northern Rockies and you don't have songbird nests in the spring when birds migrate to the region. You don't have beaver dams. You don't have ponds behind beaver dams that are important rearing habitats for lots of other species and feeding grounds for moose.

And when you remove wolves from the system, you have an explosion of other smaller carnivores that fill the gaps, and so you have lots of coyotes, and coyotes prey upon pronghorn antelopes so that pronghorn antelope populations were depressed before the wolves returned because you had large numbers of coyotes. Other smaller carnivores, raccoons, some of these species that pretty on migratory birds and smaller animals, you have a profusion of those with the wolf absent from the landscape.

With the return of the wolf, the natural order has been restored in many areas, and we do now have recovering willow streamside habitats in Yellowstone Park and surrounding areas. We've got the return of the beaver to many streams and all that entails in terms of creating diversity of habitat. We've got increased songbird numbers and songbird nesting numbers, reduced numbers of coyotes. So clearly wolves have had a huge impact on the ecosystem.

Wolf chasing a coyote. (Frank Walker / NPS)
Wolves help to keep coyote populations in check, which in turn helps to avoid overhunting of prey populations down the food chain. Above, a gray wolf chases a coyote.  (NPS)

And what we really want to do is make sure that we have a legal scheme in place so that wolves can play their ecological role in the Northern Rockies, and it's not just a handful of museum populations in places like Yellowstone but that we have millions of acres of public lands in the Northern Rockies outside of the National Parks with abundant prey populations in places where wolves can similarly have these kinds of ecological ripple effects. And we want to make sure that there's sufficient protection so that the wolves can play that role, as opposed to being eradicated from a lot of those landscapes.

Kari: Okay, Tim, at this time I'd like to remind our callers if you would like to submit a question, press 1 on your touch tone phone.

We'll take our first question from Carol in Massachusetts. "How does what's going on in Wyoming relate to wolf persecution all over the U.S.? Is a state-by-state approach the best way to fight to protect all the wolves and what about the packs that are being hunted in Arizona, Oregon, and other places?"

How will the Wyoming delisting affect the situation of wolves in other areas across the country?

Tim: It's a really good question. I think one of the great concerns we have about the Wyoming plan is it's such an extreme anti-wolf management scheme with its predator zone management, shoot-on-sight, anything-goes throughout 85 percent of the state, that it sets a terrible precedent for management of wolves in other states.

So you talk about the Mexican wolf in Arizona and New Mexico, gray wolves in other states in the Northern Rockies, and of course there are wolves in the Great Lake states, and if you have the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signing off on the idea that it's okay to essentially dramatically reduce existing populations and subject wolves to this shoot-on-sight, kill-at-will management in Wyoming, then how does the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say no when Arizona or New Mexico or Wisconsin or Idaho demands the same wolf management policies?

And we're very concerned that the approval of the Wyoming plan will touch off what amounts to a race to the bottom in wolf management because, you know, management of predators and protection of animals like the wolf remains controversial, and there are constantly forces out there that want to reduce wolf numbers and other carnivores. And we just think it's a terrible precedent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to give its stamp of approval to what amounts to eradication management throughout a huge part of the species range.

Kari: Tim, can you explain the possible impacts on a wolf pack of the random wolf killing?

How will the killing of wolves affect wolf pack behavior?

Tim: Well, in the predator zone, I think that the impact will be comprehensive in that the wolf packs will simply be wiped out. [For] people who live in those areas, it's widely known where wolf packs have taken up their territories, and I think that they've probably already been scattered out, and those wolves will be killed, and entire packs will be wiped out. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expect—and has made clear that it expects—that all the wolves in the predator zone will be killed. So within the kind of shoot-on-sight area, the impact on wolves is simply eradication—19th century style eradication of the species from the area.

Wolves hunting an elk. (Doug Smith / NPS)
Wolves chase an elk in winter. Wolves and elk coexisted on this landscape for thousands of years.  (Doug Smith / NPS)

Where there is more targeted hunting, meaning that you've got to abide by bag limits and seasons, there is a substantial body of information out there indicating that killing wolves actually is counterproductive for the reasons for which wolf killing has been justified. And that is largely that, "Well, we've gotta do something about these wolves so that they don't prey on cattle and sheep, and so we have to go out there and start shooting more wolves."

There's a strong school of thought that, what you do when you start having aggressive and extensive hunting of wolves, is you skew the population towards younger individuals, essentially teenagers, who are more likely to try to take down easy prey because they lack the skills of the older wolves, more experienced animals. And so when they look to easy prey, sort of, do you want to try to take down a wild elk that has a huge rack of antlers or do you want to try to take down a slow-moving, lumbering cow?

So there's strong evidence developing that, by skewing the population towards younger animals, you actually increase the potential for conflicts with livestock. Also, hunted wolf packs tend to have fewer members, and with fewer adults to hunt or to guard a recent kill. A small pack of wolves may actually kill more prey animals than a larger pack, so it's possible that what we'll see as Wyoming's management plays out is that the effects that Wyoming is trying to address, which are things like livestock conflicts and the like, will actually be aggravated by the kind of management Wyoming's contemplating.

Kari: A question from Joanna in Pennsylvania, Tim, if you can answer this: "What is the attitude of the population on the Wind River Indian Reservation about this issue?"

What is the situation on the Wind River Indian Reservation?

Tim: Wind River Reservation has its own wolf management plan, and on the tribal lands, it is exempt from Wyoming's shoot-on-sight approach. But unfortunately the Wind River Reservation has not turned to be a really fertile ground for wolf establishment.

There have been relatively few wolves that have taken up residence there, and there's also a lot of private land mixed into the reservation so that it's not a situation where the tribal lands themselves can probably constitute a major home for a lot of wolves. And so wolves in that area will probably be moving across a landscape where they're encountering tribal lands and private lands, and once they're on the private lands, they're subject to the predator zone management. So I don't think the Wind River Reservation is likely to be much of a sanctuary for wolves

The place where wolves in Wyoming will find a sanctuary is in Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park—but in the remainder of the state, they're going to be facing some degree of mortality from humans.

Kari: Robert in Colorado has this for you, Tim: "Based on your knowledge about where the general public stands on the issue in the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, do you think a ballot initiative banning wolf hunts would pass? Here in Colorado I worked to end the spring black bear hunt by amending the state constitution with a ballot initiative. It passed by the largest margin in Colorado voting history. I suspect the general population in some of the state would stand up against the cattle and livestock interest if it were put to a vote."

How about a ballot initiative to ban wolf hunts?

Tim: It's an intriguing idea, and hats off for the work in Colorado. I think that reality, however, is that a lot more work has to be done in the Northern Rockies before that kind of referendum could face a reasonable chance of success. The anti-wolf forces in the Northern Rockies have essentially seized the public debate, and that's why we see state wolf management falling in line with these extremely aggressive policies and population reduction goals and predator management and the like.

Part of that is because there's a mythology that's taken hold in the Northern Rockies about the impact that wolves have had on other wildlife species, and it's an article of faith in many hunting communities and outfitter camps and the like that wolves have decimated elk herds in the Northern Rockies.

Elk. (PD Photo)
Elk numbers in the Northern Rockies are greater now than when wolves were first reintroduced to the region.  (PD Photo)

Now, put aside the fact that wolves and elk coexisted on this landscape for thousands of years before European settlement, and there were more elk in the Northern Rockies after those thousands of years than there are today, but even putting that aside, the number of elk in the Northern Rockies is greater than it was when wolves were reintroduced to the region. In fact, in Wyoming, currently the state's elk population is above management objectives, meaning that they're above the target. There are more elk than the state wants, and their management goal is to reduce the elk numbers. Now, that's the official Wyoming Game and Fish Department data. Nevertheless, the fact is wolves have affected the way elks behave. Elk are no longer loafing in valley bottoms, making easy targets, and hunting elk is a much more difficult endeavor now than it was before wolves were on the landscape. And there's widespread hostility toward wolves as a result of perceived impact on hunting, and it certainly is the case that there are certain herds of elk in certain locations where wolves have been part of the cause for some localized population decline, and those tend to get a lot of publicity in this part of the world.

In fact, there's an elk herd on the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park that has dwindled substantially since wolf reintroduction and has been the most studied elk herd probably in the world, and it's been determined that a lot of factors play into that population decline, including drought and grizzly bear predation and the like, as well as wolves—but the only thing that gets any headlines is wolves.

And so while most elk populations are robust and indeed above objective, the fact that there are a handful of elk populations that have declined, lends fuel to the fire and provides all the evidence that the anti-wolf forces need to continue this vilification of wolves. And that's affected a lot of sentiment in these three states—and I think there's a lot of work to be done on the part of the conservation community to get us to a place where the public has the more informed and more tolerant approach to wolf management.

Kari: Following up on that, Evelyn in Texas has this question: "How is Earthjustice cooperating with the other groups on this issue, and what are the political remedies that can be addressed?"

How is Earthjustice working with other conservation groups?

Tim: It's a good question. Well, as you all may know, we are a law firm, and we represent others in litigation, and so partnership is kind of what we're all about. We've done this wolf work on behalf of a broad coalition of conservation organizations, including Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Biological Diversity. And so we partner with the leading conservation organizations working on this issue. Remind me of the other part of the question?

Kari: What are some of the political remedies?

Are there political remedies?

Tim: I think at this point, if you want to look very narrowly at the Wyoming issue, the political remedies are somewhat limited because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has made its decision, and it seems likely on that specific issue the Interior Department is not likely to reverse course without a legal challenge—and that's where we come in. But there are still things that I think can be done to the political system.

One is that Wyoming and Wyoming officials need to know that the world is watching and that the broader nation is watching what's going on with wolf management in Wyoming, and this isn't just matter of, you know, small rural Wyoming communities getting to treat wolves in the way that they might wish—but there are larger interests at stake. So I think it's important if people want to write letters to Wyoming Governor Mead or email to let the Wyoming state government know that people care about wolves and are watching what Wyoming does. I think that's useful.

And then on the broader issue of wolf conservation, I think [in] the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Interior Department, and ultimately the Executive Brach administration, there's always a role for advocacy to make sure that they know that people care about wolves and they care about the way that the federal government is approaching its responsibilities as the stewards of the nation's wildlife.

Kari: And to that end, callers, we make it pretty easy to take action and write the White House. If you go to our website at earthjustice.org and click on the Take Action page, you'll see a "Stop the Slaughter" action alert there, and we walk you through on how to send an email directly to the White House on this issue.

Okay, Diane in New York: "What are the future plans for the Rockefeller Parkway, and will there be hunts there in the future?"

Will there be hunts in the Rockefeller Parkway?

Tim: That's a very important point and one that's the subject of a lot of concern in this region.

[For] those of you who may not know the landscape, Yellowstone National Park, the world's first national park, sits in the northwest corner of Wyoming, largely. It's got some overlap into Montana and Idaho, but the bulk is in Wyoming. South of it is Grand Teton National Park. Connecting the two is a strip of national park land called the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, reflecting the fact that Mr. Rockefeller contributed substantially to the conservation of this region by buying up private lands, primarily in the Jackson Hole area for preservation in the national park system.

Map of Yellowstone National Park. (NPS)

The Parkway is an important connection between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. Although it is a national park unit, the state of Wyoming has claimed that it can, in the future, authorize wolf hunting within the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, and they've asserted that based on the particular federal statute that added the John D. Rockefeller Parkway to the National Parks system.

We think that Wyoming's got the law wrong, and they don't have authority over that federal national park unit and that wolf hunting there would be illegal. For the moment, Wyoming has stood down on bringing that controversy to a head because in this first wolf hunting season, Wyoming has not authorized any wolf hunting within the Parkway. However, they've sort of said, "But we could if we wanted to, and we may in the future." So we're watching it very closely, and if Wyoming attempts to authorize the killing of wolves on National Park Service land within the Rockefeller Parkway, we'll be prepared to take action and respond because we think it's highly illegal to do anything like that.

The same, by the way, is true of some private inholdings within Grand Teton National Park. The state of Wyoming has insisted that it could, if it wished to, authorize the killing of wolves on those private inholdings. Of course, when you think about a wolf pack living in Grand Teton National Park, it ranges across a broad landscape and doesn't pay a whole lot of attention to the property records, so if there's private property that the wolf pack wanders through, it's contiguous with the park lands as well. And so the National Park Service has the regulation that says that it is illegal to hunt within the boundaries of a National Park regardless of land ownership status. So according to the National Park Service itself, its own regulations, it's illegal to hunt even on private lands that are contained within the boundaries of a national park. Wyoming has not apparently acceded to that point of view, and again, if Wyoming brings that controversy to a head, we'll be prepared to challenge their action.

Kari: Louise in Massachusetts asks: "What does Earthjustice plan to do over the long term, and can we ask for a NEPA review?"

How will Earthjustice work over the long term to protect wolves?

Tim: Let me first jump to the point about NEPA. For those that aren't aware, NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, is the federal kind of charter for the protection of the environment, and its basic message is "look before you leap". That is, study the environmental impacts of what you're about to do before you do it and not after. However, NEPA plays very little role in these endangered species management contexts because the Endangered Species Act itself provides a comprehensive regulatory regime for endangered species. So I don't think that NEPA, in the context of these listing and delisting decisions, is not the principal legal hook.

Wolf pack in Yellowstone. (Doug Smith / NPS)
For decades, Earthjustice has been working for strong legal protections that will ensure wolves can recover and thrive.  (Doug Smith / NPS)

But in terms of what the long-term strategy is, I mentioned that scientists have said to us that you need approximately a couple thousand individuals to have a recovered wolf population. At the time of these delistings, the population had reached about 1700 animals, so we really would have been sort of on the 5-yard line looking at a touchdown on this issue. But now the states are determined to drive the population down well below the legitimate scientific recovery level, so we're unfortunately moving backwards instead of forwards in terms of a long-term recovery goal.

Our goal and our strategy is to try to do everything we can to stop those wolf population reductions, including by challenging and, we hope, reversing this Wyoming delisting to ensure that Wyoming must implement a more reasonable wolf management, as opposed to wolf eradication, plan. And also to really bird-dog wolf management in Montana and Idaho with the same goal in mind because ultimately what we want to do is have wolves that are playing a functioning role as an apex predator, rather than a few museum populations in national parks.

Kari: Ok, I want to remind our callers if you want to submit a question, press 1 on your touchtone phone, and we'll go ahead and get that question to Tim. Tim, beyond the politics, beyond the current state of affairs in Wyoming, the gray wolf is faced with the potential impacts of climate change. Can you talk to that aspect?

How will wolves be affected by climate change?

Tim: When we talk about climate change, there are profound impacts already occurring in the Northern Rockies. We just finished, as of about a day ago when he had snow here in Montana, one of the longest, hottest, driest summers in recent history with many thousands of acres of forest fires. And you know, we're already seeing a situation in which the glaciers in Glacier National Park are melting. It's predicted that there will be no functioning glaciers within Glacier National Park in the next decade or two.

The devastating effects of the mountain pine beetle. (NASA)
Mountain pine beetles are surviving the warmer winters, devastating whitebark pine trees, a key food for grizzly bears. The sprawling reddish areas are dead trees.  (NASA)

Within Yellowstone National Park, we've seen the results of warmer winters and insect infestations that resulted. We've seen, the eradication, essentially, of the whitebark pine tree, which was a key food source for grizzly bears with its seed cones, and so we're seeing lots of changes: less water, different kinds of precipitation, warmer winters, longer summers, earlier springs, and the whole region is in flux.

Wolves, fortunately, are among the species that are probably most well-suited to survive those changes because they're a very adaptable and dynamic animal. You know, wolves, prior to the 19th century eradication efforts, really existed from the Artic to Mexico and throughout a whole range of climatic conditions and environments, so wolves are able to deal with a variety of climatic conditions.

What they're not able to deal with is being shot and killed and poisoned and extirpated and persecuted. And that's why we really focused on this issue of human-caused mortality and state management, which is the control on human-caused mortality to try to make sure that wolves can play a robust role in the changing ecological conditions in the Northern Rockies, because they're part of the suite of wildlife that lived here throughout a whole range of climatic conditions for, you know, ten thousand years since the last Ice Age.

And it's an interaction of species and landscapes that is able to deal with changes as long as we don't mess it up too much—and we're trying to make sure that those ecological conditions can persist into the future to deal with whatever climate change is going to deliver to us.

Kari: By what means will hunters be able to kill wolves in Wyoming?

How will wolves be hunted in Wyoming?

Tim: Within the so-called trophy game zone, the regulated hunting zone, it's standard-issue hunting, which means they'll be shot with, you know, rifles.

In the predator zone, there are no limitations on the types of methods that can be used to kill wolves, and we haven't seen the whole fleet of what that means, but what we did see when Wyoming very briefly was handed the car keys of wolf management, back before our first successful challenge to delisting, was some pretty extreme things under Wyoming's predator management, including a hunter running a wolf to the point of exhaustion on a snowmobile and then killing the wolf once it could no longer run away. And we're concerned that [a] whole host of immoral and unethical methods will be used.

For example, it was practiced in the days when wolves were subject to eradication programs to gas wolf pups and again to kill the entire pack and the pups, and what that can mean is something as simple as killing the adults and then backing your off-road vehicle up to the den and running a hose from your exhaust pipe into the den and then shoveling the den exit full of dirt so that your pumping carbon monoxide from your off-road vehicle engine into the den and killing the pups. Not very pleasant to think about, not something we want to see happening, but something that we fear, you know, may actually be done in Wyoming's predator zone. And certainly Wyoming law provides no safeguard against it.

Kari: Don in Illinois has this question: "Has anyone actually looked at the percentage of livestock losses and what about the other predators?" He goes on to ask, "Why aren't the other predators being pressured as aggressively as wolves?"

What are other livestock predators? Are they also being pressured?

Tim: Good questions. Wolves are a trivial impact on livestock in terms of the big picture. For example, in 2010, Wyoming livestock producers lost approximately 41,000 cattle and calves due to all sources of mortality, meaning everything from weather to predators to illnesses and the like.

The loss attributed to wolves was 26 [cattle or calves]—26 out of 41,000. So in terms of the actual livestock losses due to wolves, it's trivial. Now, that said, I want to be fair about this. If you're the rancher who happens to be the owner of those 26 cows, that's a big deal. But there are methods already out there in place to compensate ranchers for wolf-related losses. And then there's an active program on the part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to eliminate wolves that are chronic depredators on livestock. So it's not as if there's no remedy for those things, but in terms of the big picture, wolves are a trivial aspect of livestock losses. But the second part of the question, remind me of it again?

Kari: Why aren't the other predators being pressured?

Tim: Well, there's two answers to that question. One is that there certainly is a strong incentive in some parts of the livestock industry that the world should be made safe for cattle and sheep, meaning getting rid of all predators: coyotes, wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions. And so there is some sentiment to that effect. But it is true, and I think it's incontrovertible that wolves have been subjected to more hatred and more aggressive management than other species, and I think that's kind of a complicated issue.

Gray wolf sits near a den. (Doug Smith / NPS)
Gray wolf sits near a den. Scientists have said that wolf populations should have a couple thousand members in order to be robust and genetically health.  (Doug Smith / NPS)

In the Northern Rockies, wolves are singled out, I think, for a number of reasons. One is that wolves were reintroduced by the federal government. They didn't recolonize most of their range here on their own. So for some folks, the issue of wolf recovery is tied up in [a] kind of anti-federal sentiments and fear of an overbearing federal government.

But even beyond that, you know, there's a reason why we have sayings like, "the wolf at the door" and "throwing to the wolves", and we have fairy tales about the big bad wolf. For a lot of human history, we've competed with wolves for the things that we needed to survive, and I think there's still a deep-seated discomfort on the part of some components of the population that the wolf is bad. It's sort of inherently a bad thing. And you know, there's a lot of opportunity for people to be educated about wolves.

If you go into Yellowstone Park and stop in the Lamar Valley at one of the clusters of people gathered around spotting scopes watching wolf packs around their den sides and seeing their pups and their interactions, there's a lot of joy that's generated by wolves and a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. But there certainly is a contingency out there that still harbors a lot of hatred for wolves, and I think wolves do get different treatment than other wildlife species as a result.

Kari: Are there any statistics on the impact on the local economy, tourism dollars, Tim, related to the wolves?

What's the relation of wolves to the local economy?

Tim: Well, there's certainly, in the Northern Rockies, developed a pretty impressive tourism industry, particularly in places like Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park, surrounding the opportunity to view wolves in the wild

In fact, I think it's fair to say that Yellowstone is probably the best and easiest place to see wolves in the wild, perhaps in the world, and there are outfitters and guides who make their living off of wildlife tourism in the region, who directly benefit from wolves and that they take people for the express purpose of seeing wolves in the wild.

Photographers in Lamar Valley. (F. Delventhal)
Yellowstone's Lamar Valley draws large numbers of people each year who come to watch and learn from the wolves.  (F. Delventhal)

And beyond that, the wolf is a powerful, in addition to everything it is in the real world in terms of an apex predator and a key part of the full complement of species in this region, it also has an iconic status as a symbol of wildness and wilderness. And in terms of attracting people to come to this last vestige of wild America that we still have in the Northern Rockies, certainly state governments and tourism councils and the like take full advantage of the image of the wolf as a symbol of the kind of wildness that exists here. And I think it's fair to say that for many tourists, the hope of seeing a wolf or hearing a wolf is part of the package of reasons why they come to Yellowstone National Park or Grand Teton National Park. And it's a great thrill for those folks to think about just the possibility that that might happen, and it's part of the attraction of the region. And so economically there's been, I think, a very definite impact.

But you know, like anything else, there'll be debate about that, and you'll have ranchers saying that the negatives outweigh the positives, and you'll have tourism officials saying that the positives outweigh the negatives. Our point is, what we're really interested in, is a functioning ecosystem, and the wolf is definitely a part of that, and there's certainly economic benefits associated with that. And we're out to preserve the ecosystem and the benefits it provides.

Kari: Okay, Cynthia in California says: "What's happening in the mass media around this issue? It doesn't seem to be covered. What kind of outreach is being done to make the public aware?"

Is the mainstream public aware of this issue?

Tim: There was an op-ed in the New York Times last weekend about the role of the wolf. Certainly, the issue has been covered in most of the major national news outlets, but I think it's probably also true that in the midst of significant economic issues for our nation and an election year with a Presidential election and ongoing campaigning and the like and problems arising with our foreign policy, I think it's probably fair to say that the wolf issue has not occupied the field in the national media in the way that it might otherwise have at a different juncture. But certainly we've talked to a number of national reporters, and there's been quite a bit of coverage. And actually I think the wolf issue does have the ability to break through in ways that many other issues don't because people feel very strongly about wolves

I mentioned that the wolf gets singled out for hatred more than any other species you have in this part of the world, but it also gets singled out for love and passion and devotion, I think more than many of the other species we have in this part of the world. And people care about wolves. Some people because they are living symbols of wilderness, some people because they care about their ecological role—and there's obviously combinations of all that—and some people because they, you know, remind us of a species that we're all very familiar with and close to, which is domestic dogs. And we have relationships with both kinds of animals, and we see that same kinship when you look in the eyes of a wolf. And I think people do have very strong emotional responses to wolves, and for that reason the media does tend to focus more attention on wolf issues that it might other environmental issues that arise around the country and in this region.

Kari: What are the next steps for Earthjustice?

What are Earthjustice's
next steps?

Tim: We've submitted a notice to the government of our intent to sue over the Wyoming wolf delisting. That's a required step, under the Endangered Species Act, before a lawsuit can be filed. And we will follow that notice up with the filing of a lawsuit [Earthjustice filed suit on November 14, 2012], and we will aggressively litigate our case to try to restore federal protections to the Wyoming wolf population. And the aim of that is both to protect the population that exists and protect as much as possible the opportunity for a full wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies, and also to try to leverage the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to insist that Wyoming and the other states in this region adopt responsible conservation-oriented wolf management plans and not wolf eradication plans. And that's exactly what we're going to set out to do, and that will be playing out over the months ahead.

Kari: And I know you touched on this briefly before, but what can we do as private citizens to make a difference?

How can concerned members of the public make a difference?

Tim: Well again, I think that the federal government needs to hear from private citizens who care about wolves. And the Wyoming issue's decision has been made, but there are rumors that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to move more broadly to get out of the wolf management business.

There's, in addition to Wyoming, the wolf remains listed throughout much of the rest of the United States, and rumor has it that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving towards eliminating that listing and just pointing to the wolves in the Northern Rockies and the Northern Great Lake states as getting the job done and saying that there's no more wolf recovery obligation for the United States anywhere else

A wolf pack beds down. (Doug Smith / NPS)
A wolf pack beds down. As an apex predator, the wolf is a key part to the full complement of species in the Northern Rockies region.  (Doug Smith / NPS)

So clearly there's a role for the public to make sure that the federal government knows that the public cares about wolves and wants to make sure that wolves are managed and recovered, and not turned over to hostile states and not to have wolf recovery as a priority for the government just get jettisoned.

Kari: Well, I think we're just about out of time. I want to thank everybody for the great questions today, thank Tim Preso for all of your time and expertise, for sharing that with us today.

We scheduled this teleconference because of the outpouring of concern we've received from our supporters. We want to thank the nearly 60,000 of you who wrote letters to the White House already, asking the administration to stop the delisting, and we receive calls every day from you asking how you can help. You can come to our website at earthjustice.org to take immediate action, and if you click on that Take Action page, we make it real easy to write the White House and to voice your concern about this issue.

What we're really interested in is a functioning ecosystem—and the wolf is definitely a part of that.

We hope this call has answered some of your questions and demonstrated that this issue is near and dear to our hearts. We also work on hundreds of cases each year to preserve our natural heritage, safeguard our health, and promote a clean energy future. We appreciate the time you have spent with us today and your continued support. Thank you everyone, and especially, thank you, Tim.

Tim: It's a great pleasure to talk to all of you.

Tim Preso is the managing attorney of Earthjustice's Northern Rockies office.
This phone teleconference was held on October 4, 2012.

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