by Mike Leahy
It never made much sense to me why Wyoming was so insistent on letting people kill wolves at anytime, by any means, throughout most of the state. Livestock losses to wolves are miniscule, elk are abundant, and wolves will never likely reoccupy much of the state anyway – some of it never was good wolf habitat, like the Red Desert, other areas are too agricultural.
Yet the state’s plan to let people whoop up on wolves as much as they want in most of the state has taken root, even though it goes against any notion of responsible, science-based wildlife management. It has even won support from folks who are supposed to be protective of not only our wildlife itself, but also wildlife principles and policies: the Secretary of Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and some hunting groups.
Was I missing something? Is Wyoming that different from Montana and Idaho, which manage wolves statewide without such reckless plans? I went down to Wyoming to check it out.
Prime Wolf Habitat in the Predator Zone
I focused on the southern Wyoming Range in western Wyoming, in the wolf “predator zone” where wolves can be killed willy-nilly, even though most of the land is in the Bridger Teton National Forest. I am no wolf biologist, but the area sure looks like great wolf habitat, as confirmed by the many wolf packs that have called it home over the years, including today. There’s also the abundant prey — I saw two moose, in addition to many elk and deer. Most of Wyoming’s wolf “predator zone” is not as good wolf habitat as the Bridger-Teton National Forest, although parts are. But that doesn’t mean the government should draw invisible lines that wildlife can’t cross without fear of being killed.
So why is the Forest Service letting people come onto a national forest to kill wolves without restrictions? Wildlife is one of the five purposes of the national forests under the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act, and the Forest Service is obligated to manage for healthy, viable populations of wildlife under the National Forest Management Act and the agency’s own regulations.
Yet in the southern Bridger-Teton – or southern Shoshone, or entire Bighorn National Forest for that matter – you could locate a wolf pack in mid-winter denning season (it’s not hard), bury the pups in their den, and shoot the rest of the pack milling about nearby. This is not as far-fetched as it sounds – people brag about doing similar things to coyotes.
But why? The answers are predictable.
This is big-time elk country. So big, in fact, that the state feeds elk throughout the region to make hunting them as easy as possible by artificially cranking up their numbers. In fact, in 2011 Wyoming had about 120,000 elk — more than all but three other states in the U.S.
On top of this government largesse, hunters in the area want the government to keep wolves out so they don’t have any competition for these elk.
Yet some of the hunting community’s fundamental principles are at stake – that wildlife are a free-roaming, valuable public resource that should only be killed for legitimate purposes. As apex predators, wolves have an effect on nearly all species in an ecosystem. The hunting community’s failure to stop what Wyoming is doing to wolves is likely to come back to haunt them through wildlife they care more about.
This is also big livestock country, particularly for sheep and cattle, although I saw some horses running around loose too. The Bridger-Teton touts its management of livestock, with even road signs claiming “Livestock and wildlands now work in harmony to retain ecosystem function.”
Yet one of the most important ecosystem drivers –wolves, a top predator – are not welcome. A lot of people think wolves and livestock, particularly sheep, can‘t coexist. Yet Defenders and our partners are proving they can in projects across the region. I don’t think anyone’s even tried it here. Instead, there is a pervasive belief that wolves are a serious threat to livestock, even though in 2011 only 35 cattle and 30 sheep [PDF] were verified lost to wolves in Wyoming. There were surely some losses that weren’t verified, but total losses are still well under 0.01% for both cattle and sheep across the state.
Defenders and our colleagues are challenging the Fish and Wildlife Service’s rule removing wolves from the Endangered Species Act in court. Yes, we know it will be controversial, but the federal and state plans for wolves in Wyoming are just too bad.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is requiring a race-to-the-bottom minimal population for wolves in the state – around 150. Wyoming is abandoning its commitment to manage all wildlife in “public trust”, and simply refusing to manage wolves in 85% of the state, setting a bad precedent for all wildlife — one that some Montana legislators already want to follow. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are refusing to follow their own obligations toward wildlife on public lands and letting people do whatever they want to wolves.
While it looks like it could be a long time before we see wolves in Wyoming managed like other large wildlife (the thousands of bears and mountain lions in the state are not treated nearly this badly), the state and the federal agencies could easily remedy some of the worst abuses. Let’s hope the conservationist in all of them wakes up, and they do.