The Wolf Trap
By Chuck Adams
P. O. Box 30480
Jackson, WY 8300l
American Hunter Magazine (NRA – National Rifle Association member publication
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Montana resident Geri Ball stood with her fists on her hips and a knot in the pit of her stomach. At her feet were the remains of her prize female llama, entrails and unborn baby scattered across the animal’s pen. This 850-pound pregnant pet had been eaten alive by wolves from northwestern Montana’s Nine-Mile Pack. The mother llama’s screams of pain and fear had sliced through the night…but too late to save the mortally wounded animal.
Hunting outfitter Bill Hoppe glassed a sweeping vista just north of Yellowstone National Park, his expert eyes searching for elk that have traditionally thrived in Montana Hunting Districts 313 and 317. The only tracks in the fresh snow were those of gray wolves. Hoppe also had a knot in his gut. Nonresident hunting clients were due to arrive tomorrow, and there were no elk to be found.
On the Little North Fork of Idaho’s Clearwater River, Bror Borjesson watched helplessly in his flashlight beam as members of the Marble Mountain wolf pack attacked four horses in his hunting camp at 1:30 a.m. Sheena, his pregnant Appaloosa mare, panicked and flipped on the tether rope securely knotted to his horse trailer. Her spine snapped with a sickening crunch.
Bullet, a three-year-old gelding, broke his tether rope and galloped away with Syringa, another pregnant mare. The wolves were close behind, slashing at the horses’ heels. The man never saw his prize pair again, and Sheena had to be put down.
A cowboy on the Diamond G Cattle Ranch in Wyoming’s Dunoir Valley climbed off his horse and crouched beside a mutilated beef calf. Big, doglike tracks littered the area around the carcass. The young animal’s entrails were scattered, the anus ripped out, the hips partly gnawed away. It was a classic wolf kill.
All of these incidents and hundreds more like them have occurred in the West’s Tri-State area during the past two years alone. Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are under siege by terrorists…and these terrorists are not from the Middle East. Instead, they were deliberately introduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and 1996 with the blessing of the Clinton Administration.
The Feds can’t say they weren’t warned what might happen. Carl Niemeyer was a member of the federal team that darted and transplanted the original 66 wolves from Alberta and British Columbia, Canada. He says Canadian trappers helping with this project cautioned that fully protected wolves would multiply like hamsters in their new, game-rich environment, spreading like wildfire and killing sheep, cattle, elk, and deer by the thousands.
"Everything those Canadian trappers told me has come true," says Niemeyer. He should know. He has been with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf program in Idaho since the beginning -- a state where burgeoning wolf numbers now exceed the fondest hopes of wolf lovers around the country.
The gray wolf has never been endangered in North America. Healthy populations continue to thrive throughout Canada and Alaska. But wolves vanished from the lower 48 states in the early 1930’s, a result of expanding human population and government-directed eradication programs.
In the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s, the Environmental Movement hit America. Spurred by guilt and sentimentality over man’s supposed exploitation of the natural world, the U.S. government made major moves. One was the Marine Mammal Protection Act of l972, which banned (among other things) the import of legally hunted polar bears from Canada. Another was the Endangered Species Act of 1973. As President Richard M. Nixon signed this Act into law, he declared, "The notion that the only good predator is a dead one is no longer acceptable."
The gray wolf was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1974, the first species of many including controversial creatures like the spotted owl. Livestock and hunting interests opposed wolf reintroduction to the West, and the wheels of government turned slowly amid a flurry of lobbying efforts. Then, in the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s, federal biologists discovered that now fully protected wolves were beginning to filter south into Montana, Minnesota, Michigan, and other states bordering Canada. In 1986, the first wolf den was discovered in Montana along the west edge of Glacier National Park.
Thrilled with the notion of new species to manage, federal biologists pushed for wolf reintroduction on a "non-essential, experimental" basis in central Idaho and Yellowstone Park. After five years of study, a new federal wolf bureaucracy gained momentum. The liberal Clinton Administration took control in Washington, and by the end of William Jefferson Clinton’s first term, more than five dozen collared Canadian gray wolves were romping about federal wildlands in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
Wolf recovery goals for the new program called for 30 or more breeding pairs in the Tri-State area over a period of three successive years—10 each in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. A "breeding pair" was defined as "an adult male and female wolf raising 2 or more pups until December 3l."
Wolves were not the only ones whining and howling in the mid-1990s. Hunters, ranchers, and level-headed nature lovers complained about the idiocy of introducing a vicious, indiscriminate killer among populations of carefully managed elk, deer, mountain sheep, moose, and livestock. Some biologists predicted that game management would fly out the window, canceling many millions of dollars and many decades of concentrated effort from American hunters to bring game populations back to healthy, manageable levels.
Equally frustrating to some was the very notion of introducing wolves to a new area when the species was doing so well on other parts of the continent. One Montana game warden -- who does not wish to be named for fear of losing his job -- recently used the following analogy.
"If you take a few zebra from Africa and transplant them in Idaho, then ‘Idaho zebra’ are certainly going to be labeled endangered. But zebra are not endangered at all."
Kyran Kunkel, scientific researcher for the Turner Endangered Species Fund, confirms the bleak prospects for adding gray wolves to the wildlife mix. Kunkel’s studies show that after reintroduction of wolves, deer and elk numbers decline and so does hunter success. Cougars starve, wolves kill each other, and wolf reproduction rates go down. Deer and elk populations grow slowly, wolf numbers increase, and the whole vicious cycle repeats itself
"We shouldn’t kid ourselves and think we can manage predator and prey for stable populations," Kunkel concludes.
In July of 2002, Idaho Fish and Game Commissioners heard similar dire predictions from three noted wolf scientists. These experts testified that elk populations in that state would suffer severe decline, followed by a "bouncing ball effect" as wolves died off or relocated, elk herds rebounded, and wolves repopulated again.
"This is all very unsettling," one attendee commented after the hearing. "The best efforts of hunters, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and other pro-elk groups may be in shambles."
Although wolves impact deer, wild sheep, and moose, the main concern of hunters and game biologists centers on elk. Numerous studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that 80 to 90 percent of game killed by wolves in the Tri-State area are elk.
In 2002, scientist Tom Bergerud from B.C., Canada confirmed the worst fears of sportsmen in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
"I predict a major elk decline," Bergerud said. "I’ve watched herd after herd of caribou go extinct across Canada." He went on to explain that wolves deplete one prey population, and then move into another area.
"Wolves do not self regulate," Bergerud explained. "You have to have management."
Ranchers whose livelihoods depend on cattle or sheep are also worried, despite U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service studies that say depredations on livestock are much lower than originally predicted. The Service reports that 20 cattle, 37 sheep, and 4 domestic dogs were the only confirmed wolf kills in Wyoming in 2001. Nineteen sheep were also recorded as "probable" wolf predations.
Cattle and sheep ranchers snort at such a report. The key word in USFWS studies is "confirmed." Unless a wolf is actually caught in the act of killing livestock, it is nearly impossible to "confirm" the kill. In the steep and rugged West, most wolf kills are never found, let alone identified.
Federal wildlife agents have tried many wolf-deterrence methods including electronic shock collars, electric fences, rubber bullets, shells with exploding firecrackers, and speakers broadcasting loud noises to scare wolves away from livestock. Wolves keep on killing cattle and sheep. These are intelligent, adaptable predators.
Until recently, a rancher had to receive a "shoot to kill" document from the Feds just to dispose of a problem wolf. By the time paperwork was approved and processed, the predator was long gone. Even shining a spotlight or shooting a gun in the air was considered illegal "wolf harassment."
Now, under the new "threatened" status recently implemented by USFWS, wolves can be shot by ranchers in the Tri-State area if caught in the act of killing horses, mules, cattle, sheep, domestic dogs, or sheep-protecting llamas. This almost never happens. Wolves attack at night, then vanish.
Some livestock growers were open-minded when wolves first appeared in their areas. Dairy farmer Buddy Keranen from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula says his family "was excited when we could hear wolves howling."
But wolves are now so common on the Keranen farm that they boldly walk through the calving pens and kill cattle at will.
"They don’t seem to have a fear of man," Keranen says.
Why should they? Wolves have been coddled and buffered from the wrath of man since they first appeared below the Canadian border.
Frustration has prompted a few wolf opponents to take matters in their own hands. Electronic tracking collars have been found in Michigan’s UP and the West’s Tri-State areas, cut from dead wolves that have mysteriously disappeared. The philosophy of "shoot, shovel, and shut up" is commonly laughed about at local bars in wolf country.
But federal penalties for killing an endangered species are severe -- up to one year in jail and a $100,000 fine. A rancher convicted of illegally shooting a wolf might also lose his livestock lease on government land.
Special Agents patrol backcountry areas in the West on horseback to curb wolf killing, mail educational literature about wolves to hunters, and encourage sportsmen to turn in those who illegally shoot wolves. Vigilante wolf control is risky business.
Western ranchers sourly point out that the USFWS has 10 hotlines to report illegally killed wolves, but only 3 phone numbers to report livestock killed by wolves. It’s clear where federal priorities lie.
The federal government does not pay for livestock taken down by wolves -- another bone of contention with cattle and sheep ranchers. The Defenders of Wildlife does offer financial relief if wolf predation can be proven, but that’s seldom easy to do. This well-heeled anti-hunting group has compensated ranchers to the tune of more than $200,000 since wolves began raising havoc half a dozen years ago.
"I don’t say I want every wolf killed," says Geri Ball, the Montana woman whose pregnant pet llama was massacred by the Nine-Mile pack. "But we’ve had enough. Our neighbors Gerald and Bonnie Gilbert raise sheep, and the wolves run back and forth between our properties. They kill a sheep today, and kill a llama tomorrow."
Ball says the main problem is artificial protection of wolves. They aren’t scared of people.
"Just last week, a guy was frying bacon in his camper near here. He looked out and there were three wolves right beside the vehicle. They were hungry, and they smelled that bacon.
"A friend of mine just had two calves killed by wolves inside her barn," Ball continued. "The USFWS denied the claim, because nobody actually saw the wolves do it in the middle of the night. This problem is a lot bigger than biologists admit."
Western sheep rancher Aggie Brailsford sums it up sarcastically. "Isn’t it a wonderful concept to have this huge national zoo? I don’t know whether they have the concept that we do of a lamb with its back end ripped out and being eaten alive."
Determining levels of wolf predation on elk and other big game is not an exact science, either. The remote reaches of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming make finding most wolf kills impossible. And after a week or two, who can tell what killed that stinking pile of hide and bones?
There is serious disagreement among "experts" about the effects of wolf predation on elk, deer, and other prey species.
Joe Fontaine, Assistant Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, downplays the negative impact of wolves.
"Wolf populations are having no significant effect on big game populations," this Montana-based biologist says. "There may be pockets where wolves are having an effect on wildlife, but there’s also a drought going on in the West that’s having a major effect.
"A whole host of variables come to bear on wildlife population size. Take Yellowstone Park. You’ve got grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, and wolves. Who are you going to blame for dead elk?"
Southern Montana outfitter Bill Hoppe says he knows who’s to blame. After intensively flying a 20-mile radius in his Super Cub airplane four separate times in October and November of 2002, he counted only 156 elk -- by far the worst he’d ever seen. There have been cougars, grizzlies, and black bears in Hoppe’s hunting area just north of Yellowstone Park since he began outfitting years ago. Only after wolves showed up did elk populations begin to nosedive.
In a recent address to the Montana Senate and House of Representatives, Hoppe invited members to visit his area "to see how the ecosystem north of Yellowstone Park has been, for all practical purposes, sterilized of wildlife."
Chris Smith, Chief of Staff for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, confirmed Hoppe’s observations in a memo written on October 11, 2002.
"Bill Hoppe and other outfitters who hunt in southern HD (Hunting District) 317 and HD 313 have reported seeing fewer and fewer elk in recent years. Those observations do not conflict with our data or understanding of the situation. Given the reintroduction of wolves in the Yellowstone area, it is likely that resident elk numbers…have declined either due to impacts of predation or due to displacement of animals…to avoid areas with resident wolf packs. The observations reported to us by outfitters and hunters make sense."
Anecdotal alarms about declining game in wolf country could fill a library. Dwight Schuh, long-time resident of Nampa, Idaho and editor of the country’s largest bowhunting magazine, says that hunter and outfitter complaints about lack of elk in central Idaho are sharply on the rise. For example, the Chamberlain Basin in the Frank Church-River Of No Return Wilderness Area has always been densely populated with elk…until now. Outfitters see very few bulls anymore, and one said he "quit guiding because elk hunting has become so poor."
Robert Fanning, Jr. owns a horse ranch 25 miles north of Yellowstone Park. Fanning is Chairman and Founder of Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd, Inc., a political action group with nearly 4,000 members from southern Montana. He is furious about the local depletion of wildlife, and he bluntly blames stupidity and greed on a grand scale.
"Wolf recovery is big business for biologists," Fanning recently wrote. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has created a huge bureaucracy originally formed to introduce 78-100 wolves in Yellowstone Park, but now expanded to put wolves in any rural area in America where there is an agricultural or hunting culture. If you can’t make money in spotted owls, then get into wolves, the dot.com job for biologists."
There is no question that wolf reintroduction is expensive. Official documents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveal that about $17 million has been spent on wolf restoration, management, recovery, and delisting procedures between 1973 and 2003. Current federal wolf expenses in the Tri-State area alone are about $1.4 million per year. The Service estimates there are now 660 wolves in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming combined. That means U.S. taxpayers have paid $25,757.00 for each wolf in this program. Not to mention countless dollars lost by hunting outfitters and ranchers of cattle and sheep.
A substantial portion of this money has been spent by the USFWS on voluminous federal wolf studies, day to day monitoring of individual wolf packs, attempts to control problem wolves, public relations with those who love and those who hate wolves, and legal fees to defend the wolf program.
Only 20-percent of total wolf allocations has been spent by the National Park Service, but the NPS has reaped big benefits. With elk numbers unnaturally high in Yellowstone Park due to improved habitat from wildfires and no human hunting at all, officials seem pleased to have wolves killing elk. They also believe that wolf sightings improve the tourist trade. For example, the Druid Peak wolf pack in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley has denned close to the main road since 1997. Park officials estimate that 12,000 people see Lamar Valley wolves each year. For the casual visitor without a love of elk or a vested interest in livestock, spotting a wolf is a thrill.
Even if you believe the price tag is ridiculously high, the federal wolf bureaucracy has been successful in repopulating wolves. Wolf recovery goals mandated in the early 1990’s by the Clinton Administration for the Western District Population Segment (DPS) were met in 2000, 2001, and 2002. The Western DPS includes Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
The Eastern DPS has also exceeded federal goals, with some 2,445 wolves in Minnesota, 373 in Wisconsin, and 278 in Michigan. For this reason, wolves were reclassified by the USFWS in both areas from "endangered" to "threatened" in March of 2003.
Craig Manson, Assistant Interior Secretary of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, says that, "essentially, the gray wolf is recovered."
This could be an understatement. States not even in the recovery program are now coping with its effects. Wolves have recently strayed into Washington, Oregon, and Utah. Most have been killed or transported back where they came from at taxpayer expense. Livestock growers and hunters in states bordering the Tri-State area are in a quandary about what to do.
If wolves retain their "threatened" status very long, they will surely expand into surrounding eco-systems with full protection from the federal government.
Utah is a case in point. Hunters in the Beehive State have spent $3 million purchasing elk habitat in the Book Cliffs region. Biologists estimate that 20 wolves in the Book Cliffs would kill up to 400 elk and deer each year.
Don Peay, Director of the Utah-based Sportsmen For Fish and Wildlife, is concerned about the Book Cliffs. "Throw in a few wolf litters," he worries, "and in four years you’re out of elk."
With wolf recovery goals met in record time, the USFWS now wants to delist the gray wolf and turn management over to individual states. This is a bombshell in and of itself.
Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are now caught in a wolf trap. Bordering states like Utah risk the same. Delisting the gray wolf would allow the Tri-States and any others with wolves to manage these canines like other species, with possible hunting seasons and relaxed rules for killing problem wolves by the general public.
But if states do submit acceptable management plans to keep wolves stable without unnatural protection and overpopulation, they suddenly find themselves footing the bill for destructive animals they never wanted. It’s a Catch 22.
The Tri-States are pressing for funds from the federal government to help them manage wolves. Each state will probably be required to spend $300,000 to $400,000 per year to keep wolves in check. Financial help from the Feds is iffy at this point.
Acting Wyoming Game and Fish Department Director Tom Thorne is resigned to reality. He says it’s crucial to get wolves delisted soon to control negative effects on ranchers and hunters.
"The only way we can mitigate those effects is for us to be in charge of management of wolves," Thorne says. "The alternative is huge impacts to livestock and big game."
Game and Fish Commissioner M. Hale Kreycik of Douglas, Wyoming summed up the way most Tri-State game officials feel.
"My interest is in trying to get control as fast as we can so we’re controlling 300 wolves instead of 3,000," Kreycik explained.
Senator Larry Craig from Idaho echoes these sentiments.
"Idaho did not ask for, nor did we want, these wolf populations. However, they are here to stay. Now residents and state and federal governments need to work together to manage wolves in a manner that balances interests of…other wildlife populations, and the financial impacts on ranchers, outfitters, and the State of Idaho. Until we do, Westerners and their livelihoods will join elk, sheep, and livestock as prey in the eyes of the gray wolf."
Caught between a rock and a hard place, all three states submitted wolf management plans to the USFWS in the summer of 2003. All plans call for public hunting of surplus wolves to keep populations near original federal goals. Wyoming’s plan is the most controversial, with a "dual status" provision that would place wolves in most parts of the Cowboy State in the same "predator" category as coyotes and skunks. Wolves could be shot by anyone at any time without a hunting license. Near Yellowstone Park, Wyoming wolves would have a "trophy" status governed by state hunting seasons and licenses.
Wyoming’s approach has inflamed anti-hunting groups, and will probably meet resistance within the USFWS.
Now Tri-State wolf management plans are subject to "peer review" by a panel of USFWS wolf experts. According to federal rules, all three plans must be accepted at the same time before the gray wolf can be delisted. It’s all or nothing.
If the USFWS agrees with all three plans, or if plans can be successfully modified to protect current wolf population levels forever, a Proposal To Delist will be published in the Federal Register for public scrutiny. This could happen as soon as early 2004. From there, it’s up to a few top federal officials to approve or deny final delisting.
Delisting the gray wolf could occur as early as 2005. But there will certainly be legal challenges. Eco-extremists have too many sleek, well-fed lawyers on their payrolls to expect anything else.
Defenders of Wildlife is one such group. DOW hosts a "Wolf Awareness Week" each October, and members are livid over proposed delisting.
DOW President Rodger Schlickeisen says "Handing wolf management over to the states right now is a bad idea…because several key state governments seem caught up in the reflexive hatred of some of the most strident of anti-wolf voices."
Brian Vincent, Program Coordinator for the anti-hunting Animal Protection Institute, calls Tri-State delisting plans "a collective war on wolves." Vincent views hunters, loggers, and ranchers as habitat invaders -- not wolves.
Other pro-wolf groups want full wolf recovery in every part of the lower U.S.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service has an obligation under the Endangered Species Act to recover wolves in a significant portion of their range," says Jamie Rappaport Clark, Senior Vice President For Conservation Programs at the National Wildlife Federation. Groups like the NWF say they want large wolf populations in the Pacific Northwest, northern California, Maine, and all other areas with big game and good habitat.
The USFWS does not agree. With liberals gone from the White House, the political climate is more conducive to limited wolf proliferation.
"We’ve met requirements imposed on us by the Clinton Administration," Joe Fontaine with the USFWS says. "It’s time to delist."
Ron Refsnider, USFWS Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the Midwest, seconds these sentiments.
"The Endangered Species Act doesn’t direct us to recover species across their historic range. We don’t have any plan to expand our wolf recovery programs, and we don’t think that’s required."
Some westerners are still demanding that the wolf simply go away. The Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition is presently raising money to file a class-action lawsuit forcing the federal government to eradicate wolves from Idaho altogether.
Nina Fascione, VP of Species Conservation for the Defenders Of Wildlife, hints at possible lawsuits by DOW and similar groups. "I don’t see delisting happening all that smoothly," Fascione recently said.
Legal action by anyone might slow the wolf delisting process. Chris Smith, Chief of Staff for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, recently attended a USFWS presentation on delisting the gray wolf.
"This will be tied up in political and legal knots for years to come," Smith predicted.
Ed Bangs, USFWS Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the Northern Rocky Mountains, sounds a more positive note.
"There will be lawsuits," Bangs told me. "We’ve been sued on this from every perspective you can think of. But we’ve managed to prevail in all those cases. If we have good biology and we follow the law, even if somebody sues us, we’re okay.
"Wolf recovery has been an amazing success story," Bangs continued. "When I came to Montana in 1988, there were 19 wolves in the West -- all in Glacier National Park. Now we have 600 to 700 scattered across the three western states. Biologically, wolves are recovered. Bureaucratically, we must complete the circle by delisting and turning wolf management over to the states. If it weren’t for sportsmen and state fish and game agencies that really did the bulk of deer and elk recovery in this nation, wolf recovery would never have been possible.
"I believe the next big leap will happen under state management. Within the next five years, I believe American hunters will be able to legally bag a wolf in the West."
Nobody knows where delisting might lead, but one thing is certain. The wolf genie is out of the bottle, and it isn’t going back in. Western residents will be coping with gray wolves from now on, and they’ll have to make the best of what many see as a very bad situation.
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