Friday, April 3, 2009

The wolf issue, through my eyes...

OK, this may be lengthy, as I have plenty to say about this issue and am horrible, sometimes, at compiling my thoughts in an orderly, coherent fashion. I have been passionate about canis lupus (the gray wolf) for about 10 years. In college, whenever it was allowed, I would write my papers on wolves. I really don't know where my interest originated, but I have become more and more involved in this issue; especially that of wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park, and in the Northern Rockies. Anyhow, if you do much looking around, you'll find out that this is a pretty hot-button, contentious issue in the West. The following entry is what I think about the whole thing.

The last known wolf in the western U.S. was shot and killed in about 1930. Where wolves once roamed free, they were now gone. This was not coincidence. It was not simply the wolves' fate. It was done, according to orders by the U.S. government. You see, by this time, there were many sheep and cattle ranches, spread across the land. And, as often, or rare, as it happened, the fact was that wolves were killing sheep and cattle. Why? Well, I have a few ideas. Let's back up a bit. Before the West was settled by these ranchers, wolves had food in plentiful supply: deer, elk, moose, and bison. (Also a lot of mice and squirrels during the summers). Well, bison in particular would feed a wolf pack very well. But bison were nearly killed to extinction as well, in part to starve out the American Indian, and, to make room on the praries for great herds of cattle. Rid the wolves of bison herds and the wolves move onto the next best thing: stupid cows. I like to bring this up to wolf hating ranchers because, it's my opinion that the ranchers sort of perpetuated the problem. To solve the problem back then, the powerful and wealthy ranchers coaxed the government to get rid of the big, bad wolves. And it was done by any means necessary back then; trapping, shooting, poisoning, drowning (pups), etc...

Well, jump ahead to the 70s. People, across the country, began to think differently about wildlife, even predators, which included wolves. Thank God for the hippies. In 1973 the Endangered Species Act was passed. The wolves were soon on it, and the workings of bringing these incredible animals back had begun. It took 20 years or so to make enough progress with changing public opinion, researching environmental impact, and convincing the government that Yellowstone needed wolves in its eco-system. (Wolves actually roamed the entire country at one time, especially the mountainous land from Alaska and Canada, down to Mexico.) In 1996, the first wolves were brought from Canada, mainly British Columbia, to Yellowstone National Park. The reintroduction of wolves into their once native territory was happening.

Now for some wolf biology. Wolves have something in them, much like a homing device. Take them to Yellowstone and drop them off, they'll find their way back to Canada in a matter of days. They travel, even within their own territories, an average of 25 miles daily. They do this with ease, being natural-born athletes, with very strong lungs, and long legs. Because of these things, when the wolves were transported to Yellowstone, they were placed with their families, in acre-sized holding pens, and kept there for 10 weeks. There were 3 pens total, placed in 3 different areas of the park. They were called acclimation pens. And they were successful; After 10 weeks, the wolves had forgotten about Canada and now claimed these areas as home. A total of 66 wolves were brought into the park. Just over 12 years later, there are an estimated 1500-1600 wolves within the Northern Rockies Recovery area, which includes parts of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and a small chunk of Northern Utah. The recovery has been successful thus far.

When the government agreed to this project, the plan was to get a certain number of packs established, and then to turn the management over to the affected states. A little over a year ago, the Bush Administration delisted wolves from the Federal Endangered Species list. Quickly, conservation groups sued the feds to relist wolves, arguing that all of the objectives of the project had not been met. A judge ruled and wolves were relisted. Just before Bush left office, he delisted wolves again, a decision which was upheld about a week ago by our current Secretary of the Interior. However, the fight will go on and, I'm sure, the wolves will be re-relisted soon. The biggest problem with taking federal protections away now is that one really important thing hasn't happened enough. Because the packs have moved around, and their boundaries are now separated by highways, housing developments, urban sprawl, etc...the gene pools are not mixing. But, I'm not sure how that will ever happen now. It's not like those developments and highways are going away. In reality, there will be those who will never want wolves delisted. Biologists, on the other hand, want the states to manage the wolves. This would be more likely if Wyoming were to change their position and their managment plan, which, currently, is to list wolves as vermin, where they can be shot on site at any time, for any reason, in 90% of the state. Not going to happen Wyoming. Well, that's how the reintroduction program has gone thus far.

I think I'm going to present this stuff in a few parts. It's just getting to long and no one likes to read long post. So, I'll do it in a few shorter entries. But if you read this, and you have any comments or questions, please leave them and it will spark a better discussion and more thoughts in my mind for the coming entries.

P.S. That photo is from a book I own, called "The Wolves of Yellowstone." That is "Male #10,"--one of the original 66. His genes are everywhere in the Northern Rockies recovery area now. Incidentally, none of the 66 are still alive.


Bombowly said...

nice post Wade. Looking forward to the next episode.

Wade The Rascal said...

Thanks Bombowly. It'll be interesting to see just how many volumes it will take.

Kari said...

Very interesting. One thought it brought up for me is the people that make comments like, It's just the course of nature. If they were meant to stay around, they would. Circle of life, that sort of thing. Which I do believe that things go through natural cycles, but "man" is not mother nature. And "man" deciding which things turn it is, isn't exactly following a natural cycle.

I lived on a cattle ranch in northern Nevada for two years and the ranch owners enacted a no killing policy on any ranch land. That meant that coyotes ran wild on the land. Yes they were a threat to the cattle, but the ranchers dealt with it. I was a kid so I don't really know any details, but I always remembered that and wonder if they still have that policy in effect.

Look forward to your future posts on this issue.