After repeatedly rejecting previous efforts, the federal government has approved the state of Wyoming’s new plan to kill most gray wolves in the state. Approval of Wyoming’s plan clears one of the final hurdles to lifting federal Endangered Species Act protection for wolves in the Northern Rockies. Wyoming’s plan will go into affect when those protections are lifted. Published reports say federal officials expect this to occur by March 2008. Federal wildlife officials have already approved wolf management plans from Montana and Idaho, the other two northern Rockies states with wolf populations. Idaho plans to kill many of its wolves while Montana’s plan is more tolerant.
The Wyoming plan allows anyone to kill any wolf that wanders outside a small area in the northwest corner of the state. The plan even jeopardizes wolves that live for most of the year in Yellowstone National Park and leave the park for periods in the winter in search of food. Federal approval means Wyoming will be allowed to shoot and trap all but about 100 of the approximately 300 wolves currently living in Wyoming once delisting occurs.
Wolves in the lower 48 states were listed as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act in 1973 after many years of bounty hunting nearly wiped them out. Without wolves, the Northern Rockies saw unhealthy and unnaturally large populations of elk proliferate and overgraze natural areas. Streams and creeks, once cold, clear, and full of fish and other wildlife, were muddied and grew warmer as streamside vegetation was eaten by overabundant elk. Without wolves, park rangers in Yellowstone were forced to shoot elk in the park annually to control the population. Other wildlife species were adversely affected by the unnatural imbalance created by the absence of the wolf.
After years of planning and study, in 1995 and 1996 federal officials acted to restore the balance. Sixty-six gray wolves were trapped in Canada and released in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. They prospered and multiplied. Today their offspring are thought to number around 1300, spread across Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
A 2006 study in Yellowstone determined that tourists visiting the park to view wolves brought $35 million annually to the region’s economy, which yields more than $70 million in added benefit to Northern Rockies communities according to a 2006 study led by John Duffield of the University of Montana. Elk populations are healthier, streams run cold and clear again. Coyote and fox populations are back in balance.
“Wolves were restored to the Northern Rockies to bring balance back to elk and deer populations and it worked. Wolves also bring $35 million every year in direct cash to the region from people who come from all over the world to see wolves,” said Earthjustice attorney Jenny Harbine.
In the face of this unparalleled success of the Endangered Species Act in restoring one of the Northern Rockies keystone species, the Bush administration is turning its back on a true success story. Federally approved state wolf management plans fail to guarantee that wolf populations are strong enough to perform their vital ecological function as well as avoid genetic bottlenecks brought on by inbreeding. The federal government mandate to the three states to conserve a minimum of about 300 wolves compares poorly with the Upper Great Lakes federal wolf recovery plan that calls for a minimum of 1400 wolves in order to avoid a genetic bottleneck. Conservation groups, represented by Earthjustice, have filed comments with the federal government pointing out this contradiction. According to more than 200 scientists that also commented on the delisting proposal, several thousands wolves are needed in the northern Rockies to ensure their long-term survival.