Wolf Recovery Turned Out as Planned

By Beacon Staff

I understand that some of you might feel “overwolfed,” but I thought the views of the man who probably did more to return the Big Dog to the Rocky Mountain West than any other person on Earth could be interesting.

And surprisingly, he thinks it all turned out about how he expected.

Back in the early 1990s when green groups and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) started working on the Northern Rockies Wolf Recovery Plan, which called for reintroducing the master predator into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, Hank Fischer was Northern Rockies rep for the Defenders of Wildlife. The historic reintroduction definitely wasn’t a one-man-show; many people and groups worked hard on it. But I happen to believe that without Hank’s hard work in bridging the ultra-controversial gap between conservationists and ranchers, all the time playing the right tune for skeptical politicians, the reintroduction probably wouldn’t have happened.

Hank has, incidentally, told me a couple of times that he doesn’t agree with me on this point, but I am writing that off to modesty.

If you want to read the whole story, the inside story of this epic eco-political victory, I recommend you find a copy of Hank’s book, Wolf Wars. For people just coming into the controversy, it’s definitely an entertaining and educational read.

Three weeks ago, I interviewed Hank in my mobile office, otherwise known as my drift boat, while we flayed the waters of the Clark Fork. Fishing was bad, but conversation was good.

Asked how he thought it all turned out, Hank said, “About how I figured it would, but it happened a little faster than I expected.”

The wolf recovery plan didn’t include a timetable, he notes, “but look at what we have; ten years later, and we have 1,500 wolves.”

He attributes that success to three factors, top among them the wolf’s rapid reproduction rate and “the easy, accessible prey base,” referring to the thousands of elk that had never seen the master predator and didn’t know how to escape it.

No surprise on those two points for anybody following this controversy, but his third reason for the faster-than-expected recovery might surprise you. “Ranchers have accepted that wolves are here to stay, and they are now trying to figure out how to make it work.”

Acknowledging that the ranching community doesn’t like it, Hank believes most ranchers are now peacefully and economically dealing with the wolf once again being part of the western landscape.

Back in early 1990s, Hank traveled around to ranching communities and did the so-called “grassroots work” to listen to the livestock industry and work their concerns into the final plan as much as possible. “We tried not to become enemies of the livestock industry.”

And it worked. It’s hardly unanimous, he admits, but most ranchers have settled in with the wolf instead of considering it a threat to the ranching lifestyle.

Are we ready for delisting? Definitely, he says, although oddly, he doesn’t think delisting is a big deal for the wolf. “No matter what happens with delisting or the hunting seasons, a significant portion of the wolf population is going to die every year.”

Recent history supports this view. For the past few years while the wolf was still an endangered species, 26 percent of the population died each year, mainly from control actions. Under any circumstances, that level of mortality will continue or increase.

Hank always had the “you have to kill wolves to save wolves” philosophy, which got him crosswise with other environmentalists. In fact, criticism from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups probably came closer to defeating the reintroduction than opposition from the livestock industry.

Back then, Hank successfully pushed for reintroduced wolves to come back as an “experimental population” under the provisos of the Endangered Species Act, which meant more liberal rules for killing wolves during the recovery process. The enviro hardliners hated that idea.

But having more flexibility to kill wolves worked. Without the level of control we’ve had on problem wolves, those involved in livestock or pet depredation, there might be no acceptance from ranchers or politicians.

Today, ironically, some of the same groups and same people who tried to prevent the original reintroduction 13 years ago are now leading the charge to stop or delay delisting. And again, Hank disagrees with them.

Here’s another bit of irony: Defenders of Wildlife, Hank’s former employer and the primary green group who fought the Sierra Club and others to allow the wolf to come back as an “experimental species” has now switched camps and joined them in their efforts to defeat or delay delisting.

Hank hasn’t worked for Defenders for many years, but still works for wolves (and grizzly bears and hunters and ranchers) at his new job with the National Wildlife Federation where he negotiates grazing allotment retirements. (More on that later.) Asked about this irony, he predicted that if he still worked for Defenders, he probably could get the group to support delisting instead of oppose it.

So, there you go. Amid the constant disagreement over wolf reintroduction, perhaps we can all agree that it’s interesting the way it has all turned out so far.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.