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The Wolf Finds a Home

The return of the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park is becoming a success story of the federal Endangered Species Act. Thirty-three wolves imported from Canada in 1995 and 1996 have multiplied to more than 100. Even more dramatic is the manner in which the wolf appears to be restoring the balance of nature in the park, creating “an explosion in species diversity,” as one biologist put it. And the program enjoys strong support from the public.

But all is not peaceful in this wilderness paradise, a Los Angeles County-size area in the northwest corner of Wyoming and small slivers of Idaho and Montana. Many ranchers who live on the periphery of Yellowstone are strongly opposed to the wolf program even though they are compensated for any livestock lost to wolves that move beyond park boundaries. The American Farm Bureau Federation has won a federal court judgment that would require the wolves to be “removed” entirely, from both the park and an area in the Idaho wilderness.

Wolf program supporters, including the Defenders of Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, say there is no practical way of removing the wolves without shooting them. That would be a tragedy and should not be allowed.

In an appeal brief filed in Denver in late June, the Defenders of Wildlife argued that any attempt to rid the park of wolves is not a proper remedy under any circumstance. It contended that U.S. District Judge William Downes of Wyoming erred in ruling that the reintroduction of the wolves was legally flawed.

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It’s the judge’s decision that is flawed, and the appeals court should overturn it promptly. The idea of killing the wolves would surely and righteously result in a political firestorm.

Wolves were an integral part of Yellowstone’s biological system until the last few survivors of an official eradication program were killed 80 years ago. As the wolf is a controversial animal in legend and western ranching history, opposition to a reintroduction program appeared to be overwhelming until the Defenders of Wildlife offered to compensate stock growers for any losses. That was a smart decision and has restored a dramatic feature of American history. Even with only a limited return of wolves, there has been a sharp change in the ecological balance in Yellowstone. The wolf packs have fed largely on elk, which have been chronically overpopulated in Yellowstone. There are signs that where the elk herds have been thinned by natural predators, grass is returning to overgrazed areas. And the remains of carcasses have become a healthy year-around food source for grizzlies, eagles and other wildlife.

Wolves have reduced the coyote population, allowing predators such as the fox, wolverine, hawks and eagles to feast on a growing population of rodents. Nothing like a top predator to even out the food chain.

Through last year, ranchers received $21,000 for the claimed loss of 84 sheep and seven cows and calves. Full compensation is made when there is clear evidence the death was caused by a wolf; half payment is made in cases where there is doubt. Hank Fischer, the regional representative of the Defenders of Wildlife, says he finds rancher hostility to the wolf declining as time passes. The organization is now gathering statements of support for the wolf from Yellowstone visitors, hoping to persuade the Farm Bureau to stop crying wolf and drop its lawsuit. The Farm Bureau should see the wisdom of that idea, given the relatively small loss of livestock and the widespread popularity of the wolf program. caption: Yellowstone wolves feeding on an elk. Although wolf reintroduction has succeeded, the program is under legal attack.

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