Predator Return Successful for Wolves, Environmentalists, But Devastating for Ranchers,…

Predator Return Successful for Wolves, Environmentalists, But Devastating for Ranchers, Cattle, Shee

Bush administration says some wolves are no longer endangered

By: Norma Bennett Woolf  Date: 01/12/2012 Category: | Wildlife Journal |

On April 1, the Bush administration downgraded the gray wolf (Canis lupus) from endangered to threatened in northwestern Montana and in Michigan and Wisconsin. The ruling does not change the endangered status of wolves in other states included in the canine’s historical range, or the threatened status of gray wolves in Minnesota, or the experimental populations in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. It also does not affect the experimental population of Mexican wolves (Canis l. baileyi), in Arizona and New Mexico or the designation of endangered for indigenous Mexican wolves in other areas of the southwestern US.

The reclassification provides more flexibility in managing wolves and is dependent upon passage of wolf management programs by governments in each of these states. While the US Fish and Wildlife Service retains oversight, the states will have the authority to remove wolves that harass or kill livestock or pets and will bear the burden of costs.

The change follows the requirements of the ESA by relaxing protections as the populations increase and survival becomes more probable. In the Federal Register document (1) announcing the rules change, the government noted that the “three initially isolated gray wolf populations in northwestern Montana, central Idaho, and the Greater Yellowstone Area have expanded in range and increased in numbers to the point that they are no longer isolated from each other and the movement of individual wolves from one to another is becoming more common.” There is also an exchange of wolves between the northwestern Montana population and packs across the border in Canada.

However, environmental groups that favor return of predators to their entire historical range oppose the downlisting. Claiming that the wolf is still in “critical condition,” the Animal Protection Institute said that the Montana State plan would allow the killing of wolves. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies accused the state of basing its plan on politics, not science.(2)

Defenders of Wildlife, an activist organization spearheading the reintroduction efforts, not only opposes the reclassification of some wolf populations to threatened, it promotes reintroduction of wolves to the Northeast, the Southern Rockies, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and areas of northern California and Nevada before species survival can be considered successful.(3)

Furthermore, Defenders believes that people must learn to accept or at least tolerate wolves on private as well as public lands and advocates that, “At a minimum, FWS should support the expansion of existing or restored gray wolf and red wolf populations into former habitats with sufficient natural prey. For example, the recent dispersal of a female gray wolf from central Idaho into Oregon should have been encouraged and supported, not pre-empted by trapping and returning the animal to Idaho.”(4)

Ranchers, farmers, hunters, and campers often have a different view, and point to stories of wolves harassing campers, killing pets, decimating livestock, drastically reducing herds of wild ungulates, and attacking people as evidence that man and wolf are not necessarily compatible. They not only oppose reintroduction of wolves into their states or areas, they want the ability to manage wolves that cross boundaries from the experimental areas. Wolves released in Yellowstone National Park have wandered into surrounding areas and attacked pets and livestock, and at least one wolf from Idaho has crossed into Oregon and caused confrontations between ranchers and hunters and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The Idaho wolves are considered an experimental population under the Endangered Species Act, a designation that allows for culling if the predators harass or attack domestic animals. Oregon is not part of the experimental area, so once the wolves cross the border, they are considered an endangered species and cannot be harmed. According to a recent report in the Denver Post (5), wolves in Wyoming are getting closer and closer to the Colorado border, and the state has yet to write a wolf management plan.

Armed by the enormous success in restoring wolves to Yellowstone National Park and to wilderness areas in Idaho, those who favor wolf reintroduction have moved on to Arizona and New Mexico, where reintroduction of the Mexican wolf is in progress, and to New York’s Adirondack Park and northern New England, where discussions aimed at releasing wolves are underway. Defenders provided more than $100,000 to study reintroduction of wolves into northern New York State, and talk has surfaced about bringing wolves back to northern New England. Anticipating the results of these discussions, New Hampshire lawmakers voted to prohibit a reintroduction project in their state, but the federal government can override that decision.

Those who object to wolf releases quarrel with the conclusion that an increase in wolf numbers means success; they measure instead the declines in elk populations that bring a concurrent decline in hunters’ dollars to regional economies and depredation of livestock that plagues farmers and ranchers as direct results of the increase in wolf packs.

Wyoming rancher John Robinett told the Denver Post that he tries hard to live with the wolves, and as a result, he is caught between environmentalists who want to change his lifestyle and other ranchers who don’t want the predators around.

Robinett said he has trimmed his cattle herd and tried special fencing to minimize problems, all to no avail – he has lost dozens of cattle, five dogs, and a foal. Sometimes the wolves come onto his porch.(6)



Early in the last century, the government sided with those who had hard evidence that livestock was at the mercy of these large, effective predators and paid bounties for skins. The result? In 30 years, wolves were wiped out in the lower 48 states. Now they are back, in some places by natural dispersal, in others courtesy of the federal government.

Wolves migrated from Canada to Montana on their own, and a remnant population in northern Minnesota increased its numbers and dispersed naturally into Wisconsin and Michigan. Even while environmental activists, wolf biologists, and the federal government discussed returning wolves to Yellowstone National Park in southwestern Montana, several packs of the animals made themselves at home in Glacier National Park in the northwestern corner of the state. In 2002, more than 100 wolves inhabited the area in 12 breeding packs.

Natural dispersal of the wolves from Canada into Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan commenced over a period of 20 or so years. By the end of 2002, the population in Michigan and Wisconsin had reached more than 600 animals, and Minnesota counted more than 2400 wolves in 1998. As the packs scattered southward in Minnesota, attacks on livestock escalated. In 1980, officials removed 17 wolves from the population; 10 years later, they captured or killed 91 wolves. The numbers continued to rise: 1992 saw 118 wolves removed, and the count in the remaining years of the decade hovered at 150 animals with a dip to 82 in 1995 and a jump to 216 in 1997.(7)

The Endangered Species Act became law 30 years ago. The ESA requires that recovery programs be developed for each species listed as endangered. If that recovery program involves ‘seeding’ former habitats with animals of the same species, those habitats must not only be free of breeding populations, they must not be close to an existing breeding population that has the potential to spread naturally.

The ESA also allows for experimental populations of reintroduced animals so that individual animals found to be dangerous to people, pets, and livestock can be removed without violating the prohibition on killing or otherwise taking an endangered species.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service captured wolves in Canada to reseed Yellowstone and the Idaho wilderness. Although they planned on bringing a few wolves each year for five years, they halted the relocation after two years. In 1995, 15 wolves were released in Idaho and 14 in Yellowstone; in 1996, Idaho got 20 more animals, and Yellowstone received 17 more. At the end of 2002, Idaho had 285 wolves in nine breeding packs and the Yellowstone ecosystem had 271 wolves in 23 breeding packs.

Discussions aimed at wolf reintroduction lasted several years as the government and environmental activists tried to bring hunters, farmers, and ranchers on board. Finally, in an effort to get the project off the ground, Defenders of Wildlife set up a $100,000 escrow account to pay farmers and ranchers for livestock loss due to wolf predation and offered $5000 to any rancher who allowed wolves to raise cubs on his property.

Two years after the releases, the Farm Bureau Federations of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, the National Audubon Society and other groups and individuals filed suit to reverse the program. The trial judge sided with the plaintiffs, but the case was ultimately lost on appeal. (8)


Wolf biology and behavior

Conventional wisdom has it that wolves are shy creatures wary of man and human habitat, and that wolf packs hunt livestock only when they can’t find or catch their traditional prey.

Environmentalists add to that description with stories of wolf-pack bonding and family structure, alpha and beta animals, hunts that keep prey herds healthy by killing the old and sick, and haunting group howls, painting a picture of a benevolent predator that wants only to be left alone to do his duty to the Earth.

Wolf structure and behavior combine to make the animal a consummate predator. Lone wolves and youngsters develop techniques for killing small animals such as mice, rabbits, and beaver, and wolf packs coordinate their hunt to take down moose, elk, pronghorn antelope, white-tailed deer, and even bison. They eat several pounds of meat at a large kill and may go several days between kills.

Wolf pack social structure has been much discussed as a model for understanding dog behavior and as evidence that wolves have emotions and a commitment to family. Packs range in size from two animals to 20 or more, but most hover around 10 animals, usually members of the same family. Young adult wolves tend to leave the pack to form family groups of their own.



Wolf territory depends on the availability of prey and the proximity of other packs. Some territories overlap, especially where prey is plentiful. When that territory includes farms and ranches, clashes inevitably occur.

In New Mexico, Jinx Pyle and his 80-year-old mother Dorothy own 160 acres have a grazing allotment of 7040 acres where they are allowed to run 20 head of cattle and four horses. In 2001, that allotment supported 14 cows, one bull, four horses, several hundred elk, an unknown number of deer, and Mexican wolves relocated to the area by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The Pyles lost five calves to the wolves within a month.(9)

The gray wolf recovery weekly progress report for February 8-21, 2003, noted the following incidents:(10)

  • February 10: Unconfirmed report of a possible wolf-killed calf near Red Lodge, Montana.
  • February 12: A rancher in the Paradise Valley legally shot two uncollared wolves in his cattle/calving pasture. He had a shoot-on-sight permit for up to two wolves that were on private land and near his livestock.
  • February 15: A calf was killed by two wolves on private property north of Mackay, Idaho. A probable wolf-killed calf was found three days earlier, and a possible wolf-kill, mostly consumed, was found 10 days earlier. A male gray wolf was seen in that vicinity and shot by wildlife authorities that afternoon. It had calf hair in its stomach.
  • February 17: The Taylor Peak wolves harassed a mule in the Madison Valley. The mule had a deep wire cut on its leg, probably received while dodging the wolves. The pack then went further down the valley and got into a fight with several dogs through a kennel fence but none of the dogs were injured. The rancher who has lost several llamas to wolves in the Ninemile Valley reported that a pair of wolves have been seen hanging around the area on several occasions recently.
  • February 18: Rancher reported a suspected wolf-killed calf closer to Red Lodge. This rancher had depredations in 2002. He reported seeing two gray wolves harassing a mare and foal and scared them off by firing shots over their heads.
  • February 19: The same rancher reported another probable calf kill that was confirmed the next day. The suspected wolves belong to the Red Lodge pack. Five wolves in that pack killed a cow and other calves last year. As a result of these incidents, lethal control for up to five wolves was authorized.
  • In Meeteetse, Wyoming, a calf was confirmed killed by two wolves. Lethal control was authorized for up to two wolves in the immediate area of the depredation.


Elk hunters aren’t ecstatic about wolf relocation projects either. In 1999, outfitter Scott Farr told officials at a town meeting (11) in Challis, Idaho, that elk in the state are already under pressure and cannot withstand depredation by a growing population of wolves. Noting that elk cow/calf ratios have fallen from 38 per 100 in 1995 to 18 per 100 in 1998 – a ratio insufficient to maintain the population – in the Middle Fork Flight Survey, Farr said:

“The point I’m making is that there are several factors related to the low survival rates among our ungulates, most of which can be managed in one manner or the other. The one factor that cannot be managed is the element that has the most negative potential, a fast growing, unchecked wolf population. ... The signs are already evident, just five years after wolf reintroduction. We have experienced over a 50 percent reduction in elk cow/calf ratios since the original transplant, while there were no new evident factors affecting those populations.”

In his well-documented report “The wolf: myth, legend, and misconception,”(12) T. R. Mader, research director of the Abundant Wildlife Society of North America, draws a dozen specific conclusions enumerating drawbacks to wolf reintroduction programs and listed many questions to be answered about the impact of such relocations of predators. The following seven conclusions are taken from Mader’s list.

  1. Wolves are not biologically in danger of extinction and should be removed from the Endangered Species Act. There are 1500 to 2000 Wolves in Minnesota, 6000 to 10,000 in Alaska and 40,000 to 50,000 wolves in Canada, according to the biologists. They are not, nor ever have been, in danger of extinction.
  2. Although the full effect of wolf predation on wild ungulates is not known, wolves will affect hunting of ungulate populations in and surrounding recovery areas. Even if hunting is restricted in the recovery area, it will still affect hunting outside of the area since most ungulate animals migrate to some extent.
  3. Wolves will not stay in recovery areas. Wolves have been documented traveling hundreds of miles.
  4. Wolf depredation of domestic animals will occur.
  5. Wolves often kill more than they eat. Although the scientific explanation may be inconclusive as to why wolves kill for the sake of killing, it is a documented fact that wolves often do kill more than they require for food.
  6. States must consider economic factors of wolf reintroduction as limited game would mean limited allowable licenses for that game. For example, federal officials estimated that 10 wolf packs in Yellowstone National Park would eat more than 1000 elk annually. The State of Wyoming figures that income per elk hunter (based on 1986) is as follows: Resident = $367.93 - Out of State = $1221.00. If those 1000 elk were harvested equally by resident and out of state hunters, income to the state would be $794,469.00 annually. Thus wolf reintroduction could mean serious loss of income for wildlife management to states slated for wolf recovery.
  7. Wolves, at times, do pose a threat to man himself. This is the exception to the norm. Many early accounts were unverifiable or found to be untrue. But, there are enough current documented accounts to attest to wolf attacks on man.

About The Author

Norma Bennett Woolf's photo
Norma Bennett Woolf -

Editor and Writer for the National Animal Interest Alliance.

All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |
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