Out of Bounds

Never Ending Wolf Wars

Wolf restoration in the Northern Rockies has been an unqualified success. But wolf management? Not so much.

By Rob Breeding

Earlier this week a friend shared a story from 2011 suggesting how some environmental groups miscalculated their legal approach to wolf reintroduction, and that in turn, they’d maybe harmed the long-term viability of the program.

The story was written by Montana outdoor writing dean Hal Herring. Reading it was like being startled awake by a terrifying nightmare only to realize your bad dream was real. The fighting, it seemed, never ceased.

Wolf reintroduction happened in 1995. It was touted as a sign of the changing West and a new ethic about land and wildlife management. I bought into the idea, initially, that the New West would be governed by a coalition of hunters, conservationists, farmers and ranchers who recognized the value of enhancing, rather than merely consuming, natural resources.

That coalition did emerge. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a governing majority in the West.

It now seems foolish to have assumed a new social equilibrium would emerge post-reintroduction, one where everyone accepted the return of maybe the West’s most notorious predator. Silly me, but with the wolf paradigm changed from eradicated to reintroduced, I assumed everyone would set about making the program work.

I thought 1995 was a real Kumbaya moment. But in the nearly 30 years since wolves were released in Yellowstone National Park and the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness, wolf management looks like every other contentious issue in the West, with two or more interest groups screaming over the resource pie.

Herring points out the obvious miscalculation of environmental groups going to court to prevent delisting wolves in the Northern Rockies and the promised wolf hunting seasons that were always a part of the reintroduction plan (hunting is a euphemism for management here). I’ve been saying this for as long as folks have been trying to stop wolf hunting. I’ll say it again even after last year’s horrific wolf bloodbath just over the border from Yellowstone.

Hunting, I mean management, was always part of the reintroduction bargain. The lawsuits just made it look like a trick.

Environmental groups weren’t the only folks who miscalculated. Wyoming long resisted coming up with a reasonable wolf management plan, preferring a picket-pin approach. For those who don’t know, “picket pin” is what a lot of folks call ground squirrels. And target practice is the only proper use for picket pins for those who call them that. Wyoming’s intransigence probably delayed more assertive management in those early, critical years.

Wolves soon blew past the target of 300 animals with 30 breeding pairs in the three recovery states. The number of wolves in Montana alone has been more than 1,000 since 2011.

Personally, I’m fine with 1,000 wolves. The more the merrier is my philosophy when it comes to dogs and their wild cousins. This isn’t a matter of personal choice, however. Wolves live primarily on public land and feed primarily on public wildlife. Once beyond the level necessary to sustain wolves in the region, population size becomes a matter of public debate. Elk hunters, livestock producers, hikers, ecotourists, picket-pin terminators and any other citizen with an opinion gets to weigh in.

And what’s good for me and my canine-worshiping ways won’t be good for everyone. Rather than hitting 1,000 wolves in Montana with another 1,500+ in Idaho and Wyoming, I wish we’d stayed closer to that original target of 300 wolves with 30 breeding pairs. Why? Primarily because we seem to have exceeded the social — as opposed to biological — carrying capacity for wolves in the Northern Rockies.

Whether that would have been enough to tame the wolf wars we’ll never know. The good news is that we got wolves on the ground in the first place and that they are expanding to states as far away as California. Wolf restoration in the Northern Rockies has been an unqualified success. But wolf management? Not so much.

For that, there’s blame enough for everyone involved

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