Our Pack to the Rescue

Earthjustice attorneys brought their message to the howling masses on reddit. By bringing attention to the plight of wolves, they helped convince Congress not to declare open season on these imperiled canines.

Timber wolf, Josef Pittner/iStock
Last month, as the deadline to finalize spending legislation approached, Earthjustice attorneys Tim Preso and Marjorie Mulhall broadcasted the congressional threat to wolves on reddit. (Josef Pittner/iStock)

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In 2014, Earthjustice won a major court victory to return wolves in Wyoming to protected status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). But in mid-2015, members of Congress slipped a policy “rider” into House and Senate spending bills that would have overridden that Wyoming court decision as well as another federal court decision, stripping wolves in Wyoming, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota of ESA protections. If enacted, that rider would have given Wyoming the green light to resume its hostile management program, including shoot-on-sight killing of wolves across 85 percent of the state with no limit or regulation whatsoever.

Last month, as the deadline to finalize spending legislation for this fiscal year approached, attorneys Tim Preso and Marjorie Mulhall went all-out to broadcast the threat of this wolf policy “rider” to the public. Preso and Mulhall fielded hundreds of questions on reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” forum, from “What’s your favorite wolf book?” to “Is it ever OK to kill an endangered animal?” The spirited debate pushed this Q&A session to reddit’s front page, which attracts 9 million visitors a day. In part because of Earthjustice’s outreach, the wolf “rider” was not included in the final government spending bill, signed by President Obama on December 18.

Earthjustice attorneys have to be experts in just about everything—not only the intricacies of case law, the rules of courtroom procedure and the ins and outs of legislating on Capitol Hill, but also the science that underpins conservation decisions. Mulhall offered her expertise as Earthjustice’s eyes and ears in Washington, D.C., on how Congress grinds the government spending sausage, so to speak. Then Preso tackled questions about wolf biology, management strategies and hunting impacts, countering myths and misconceptions with hard data on wolf numbers across the U.S.

Read an excerpt of Preso and Mulhall’s AMA here, or check out the whole conversation on reddit.com.

Q. Why are they slipping these anti-Endangered Species Act riders into the budget bill this year as opposed to other years? Has this been a problem in the past?

M: Over the past few years there's been a big increase in the number of bills and amendments introduced in Congress to undermine the Endangered Species Act, including legislation to block federal protections for particular species. This uptick in anti-Endangered Species Act legislation was seemingly kicked off in 2011, when Congress legislatively removed federal protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho. That 2011 wolf delisting rider set a very damaging precedent for congressional meddling with science-based protections under the Endangered Species Act. It's critical that we put a stop to such undermining of the Endangered Species Act.

Q: How is Congress allowed to get away with using the government spending bill in this way? It seems very shady.

M: Yes, this is indeed a shady practice—often used by members of Congress as a way to try and pass into law highly controversial measures that could not succeed as standalone legislation. However, with sufficient attention and opposition from the public, congressional proponents of these controversial "riders" have much less chance of success.

Q: Why do you guys care about wolf conservation?

P:  Wolves have beneficial impacts on the environment that cascade through entire ecosystems. Wolves prey on grazing animals, such as elk, which affects the numbers and behaviors of those animals, which in turn impacts all kinds of things including vegetation and even songbird habitat. Wolves also are important within our culture because they are living symbols of wilderness and wildness for many people.

Q: Why are people shooting wolves in the first place?

P: While some wolves are shot due to conflicts with livestock, others are shot for recreational hunting under state law. But Wyoming's laws go even further to allow wolves to be killed without any limit, year-round, throughout 85 percent of the state's territory. This amounts to a wolf eradication policy for the great bulk of Wyoming, including areas that are important migration corridors to link wolves in Wyoming up with populations in Montana and Idaho.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Program 2014 Report (which is the most recent one available), 481 wolves were killed by hunters in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in 2014. That represented 68% of all human-caused wolf mortality in 2014.

Q: The population control of wolves should be left to the state so that they can react to population changes.

P: State wildlife officials can be in charge once they step up to the responsibility of enacting management measures that provide adequate guarantees to secure a recovered wolf population so that we don't reverse all of the progress that has been made. Unfortunately, Wyoming failed to do that, which is why we sued.

The whole reason the Endangered Species Act was enacted in the first place was because states were not protecting our country's heritage of native wildlife, instead focusing on preserving game species while remaining hostile to predators and generally indifferent to non-game wildlife. A lot of progress has been made since then, but sadly some states continue that trend to this day.

Q: If gray wolves being shot on site is becoming an issue due to their population, isn't the problem that these wolves are living too close to people, not that people are shooting too many wolves?

P: In the Northern Rockies region, most wolves do not live near major human population centers. Although conflicts with humans do occur, they generally involve wolf depredations on livestock. Although these incidents get a lot of publicity, they are a drop in the bucket of livestock losses sustained by the ranching industry. For instance, Wyoming cattle and calf losses from all causes totaled 41,000 animals in 2010. Wolves were responsible for 0.7% of all cattle losses and 1.7% of all calf losses in Wyoming during that year.

Q: If it comes down to saving a human or killing an endangered animal to protect said human, would that be considered OK, legally speaking?

P: Yes, the Endangered Species Act permits killing an endangered species in self-defense. However, it is important to note that wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare. Only two known human deaths have been attributed to wolves in all of North America, one in Alaska and one in Canada.

…Further, many people have encountered wolves in the wild in Yellowstone National Park or other areas of the lower 48 where they exist and left feeling inspired rather than threatened.

For the record, there were an unprecedented 4 million visitors to Yellowstone National Park this year through the end of September 2015. There were no wolf attacks on humans, nor even any reports of wolves threatening humans. As to wild prey species, in 2012—17 years after the reintroduction of gray wolves into the Northern Rocky Mountains region—the Wyoming Game and Fish Department reported a population of 109,525 elk in the state, which substantially exceeds the department’s own management objective of 83,640 elk.

Q: One side effect of [wolf recovery] is that the elk herds have declined dramatically. Elk hunting is a pretty big tourist business for states like Wyoming. Park rangers and hunting guides alike are blaming the elk herd reduction on the 'pest' wolf population.

P: Actually, elk populations in the Northern Rockies remain at high levels. Further, wolves typically cull weak and sick animals, which is believed to be a factor that is protecting elk in the Yellowstone region from becoming afflicted with chronic wasting disease (the elk version of "mad cow disease")—a disease that is present in other parts of the state that don't host wolf populations.

Wildlife biologists explain that predator populations are limited by the level of their prey populations, not the other way around. So, regardless of its original size, a wolf population would ultimately fall into equilibrium with its prey population, just as wolves and elk did for thousands of years on this continent before wolves were eradicated from most of their range by human intolerance…Wolves lived in balance with their prey species over the millennia before modern wildlife management entered the scene.

Q: Do you hunt elk? Do you favor the proliferation of wolves because you like seeing rural western people unable to self-sustain through harvesting elk and moose as we used to?

P: Yes, I have hunted elk, and I and many others enjoy experiencing elk and other species in a diverse environment that includes native predators such as wolves. As to impacts on elk hunting, the fact is that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department reported that Wyoming elk hunters killed a near-record number of elk in 2013—25,968 elk with a hunter success rate of about 45 percent.

As to sustaining rural communities, the good news is that wolf-related tourism has boosted many local economies in the Northern Rockies region. A recent study documented that wolf restoration has produced a $35.5 million annual economic benefit to the Greater Yellowstone area.

Q: Do grey wolves have subspecies with notable differences? I stumbled on a hunter's forum once that made the claim that reintroduction efforts chose a faster-breeding (and larger?) northern subspecies, which the discussants thought was a dangerous choice made too lightly. 

P: There is a widespread mythology about this issue that is repeated time and again by wolf opponents, but the fact is that wolves for the Yellowstone reintroduction were captured in western Canada. Given the immense distances that wolves are capable of traveling, along with the fact that the wolf populations in Canada and the northern states existed as one continuous, unified population prior to European-American eradication efforts, it seems highly unlikely that there was much difference between the original native wolves of the Pacific Northwest or Northern Rockies and the wolves of western Canada that were captured for the reintroduction. In fact, if there was any difference, it might likely stem from the fact that the original native wolves of the Northern Rockies were preying heavily on buffalo and therefore may well have been bigger and stronger than the western Canada wolves that persist today!

A journalist and graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Heather was the associate editor from 2015–2017.