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The Greatest Threat to Wolves Isn’t Guns and Traps, but Pens and Politics

The U.S. House of Representatives is again trying to remove protections for wolves in several states for purely political motivations, ignoring science.

Gray wolf howling in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

Gray wolf howling in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

Photo courtesy of Ronnie Howard

Conservationist Bob Ferris once remarked, “Wolves are very resourceful. All they need to survive is for people not to shoot them.” If I were to amend that statement at all, it would be to add that wolves also need for politicians not to meddle with the law that protects them from being shot at in the first place. 

This week a House of Representatives appropriations committee released a bill to fund the government, slipping in a policy “rider” that would strip Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in Wyoming, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The motivations for this action are purely political, ignoring two separate federal judges who found that these states’ wolf management plans did not adequately protect wolves within their borders. The wording of the rider further specifies that this legislation to strip wolves’ protections would not be subject to judicial review. In other words, the rider would prohibit citizens from challenging the delisting of wolves in those states.

We’ve seen this play before. In 2011, members of Congress from the northern Rockies succeeded in removing Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana by including a rider in a must-pass bill to fund the federal government. Wolves in those states were effectively turned into a political bargaining chip. In Idaho, the Fish and Game Department has since been conducting aerial gunning and trapping to reduce the wolf population. The state wildlife agencies argue that the wolves deplete the elk population prized by hunters in the region. It’s worth noting that these same agencies also receive most of their funding through hunting and fishing licenses—calling into question their ability to make impartial decisions when managing a predator species like the wolf.  

State wildlife agencies in the Northern Rockies also don’t seem take into account that habitat loss, food shortages and hunters have a much larger effect on reducing elk populations than do wolves. Further, biologists note that the introduction of a predator species does change the behavior of the elk but to the benefit of the entire ecosystem, keeping elk from overgrazing along riparian areas and stymying the growth of young trees. This has allowed birds, beavers and other species to rebound in those areas. Further, wolves have been found to actually contribute to the health of the overall elk population by typically targeting the weaker and sicker animals, limiting the amount of time the animals can spread disease to the rest of the herd, thus bolstering the population of large, healthy cows and trophy bulls that hunters go after in the first place.

Since wolves were reintroduced to the northern Rockies 20 years ago, they have been under nearly constant threat of losing their federal protections. The importance of wolves as part of a functioning, healthy ecosystem has long been understood, but it took years of political will-building to finally bring them back. The reintroduction of wolves has since been heralded as one of the greatest achievements of the Endangered Species Act, one of America’s bedrock environmental laws. Yet some in Congress are willing to throw it all away—punching holes in the Endangered Species Act through attacks on protections for particular species such as wolves, and circumventing the judicial process by forbidding any legal challenge to flawed and damaging wolf management plans. 

There’s still time to change this. Urge your senators to oppose any legislation that undermines existing federal protections for wolves.

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