The big bad wolf

Gary Ferguson's latest book is "Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone," co-written with biologist Douglas W. Smith.

It's been nearly 100 years since 22-year-old graduate biology student Aldo Leopold shot and killed one of the last wolves in New Mexico. He later recounted the event with regret, describing having watched in the animal's eyes the "dying of that fierce green fire." Decades later, as one of the most influential conservation biologists of his day, Leopold would be among the first to articulate the importance of predators in healthy ecosystems, calling in 1944 for the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

One can only imagine what he might think of the killing spree going on today in the northern Rocky Mountains. In Wyoming alone, at least 16 wolves have been shot since they came off the federal endangered species list on March 28 -- including two within the first 24 hours, ambushed by hunters waiting near an elk wintering ground.

Heaven knows the wolves did their part to get off the endangered list. There were almost no wolves in the northern Rockies before they were reintroduced in 1995 and 1996, and they took full advantage of a land nearly bereft of their own kind, repopulating it with remarkable efficiency. By 2000, the three recovery zones -- greater Yellowstone, northwest Montana and central Idaho -- had already met the target criteria for delisting: 300 animals and 30 breeding pairs for three consecutive years. Today, an estimated 1,500 wolves live in and around those recovery zones, including about 100 breeding pairs.

From a scientific perspective, then, the gray wolf of the northern Rockies is no longer in danger of extinction. Some environmental groups opposed to delisting claim that there is insufficient genetic diversity, particularly in the more isolated wild lands of greater Yellowstone. But in that area alone, there are about 450 animals. Given that the genetic diversity rate of these wolves is on par with those of northern Canada, as well as the fact that there are signs of ingress by animals from other places, the majority of North America's prominent wolf biologists simply don't share that concern. Nonetheless, on Monday a dozen environmental groups filed suit in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Mont., hoping to overturn the government's decision to remove the wolf from the endangered species list.

For all the good news in this story, the wolf continues to shoulder a burden shared by no other species on the continent -- a harsh, unrelenting yoke of human malevolence. Leopold's insight that wolves foster healthy ecosystems seems lost on many. But wolves keep prey populations in check, thus preventing overgrazing; they cull sick deer or elk from the herds, thereby reducing the spread of disease; and the scraps they leave behind feed grizzly bears, golden eagles and other species.

The lingering fear of wolves is surely linked to the animals' extraordinary intelligence. Nearly every aspect of a wolf pack's existence -- including their hunting techniques and how they raise young -- is a highly cooperative effort. And it is eerie how quickly they adapt. When trappers first started killing wolves with poisoned carcasses, for example, many learned in little time to take only live prey.

At the same time, some people seem stuck in the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church declared wolves to be "the devil's dog" -- literal proof of Satan walking the Earth. (Wolves were routinely hung in the village square or burned at the stake.) In the American West, the most fanatical anti-wolf people today also cast the animal as a symbol of evil -- not the kind emanating from the devil but from a heretical federal government that dares to be at cross purposes with ranchers.

Federal protection held such malice at bay for 12 years, but now the wolves are at the mercy of ill-conceived state wildlife management rules. Aggressive wolf opponents are hardly a majority in the Rockies, but it's impossible to overstate the depth and breadth of their loathing. Death threats leveled at federal officials during the initial reintroduction, for instance, soon yielded to vigilante plots to poison wolves -- bumbling attempts that resulted mostly in the killing of people's dogs.

Even as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was weighing delisting in 2007, Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said that he wanted all but 100 of his state's wolves killed. Furthermore, he was "prepared to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself."

Such perverse unreasonableness -- mostly in Idaho and Wyoming -- arguably kept the wolf on the endangered species list this long. Delisting was slowed on several occasions by Wyoming legislators who insisted that it be legal to shoot wolves on sight in more than 80% of the state. (The excepted area was the northwest corner, adjacent to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.)

Season after season, the Fish and Wildlife Service stood firm against that stance. In the end, though, the federal agency gave in. As of this writing, tough-guy "wolf posses" are driving around Wyoming's predator zones, locked and loaded, eager to kill.

Meanwhile, in Idaho, you can get a wolf-hunting permit for just $26.50. But why bother? You are also free to kill a wolf "annoying, disturbing or persecuting" domestic animals. Given that a stray dog or even a moose or elk standing in the field can annoy or disturb livestock or pets, this is nothing less than a free pass to shoot. (Would-be wolf killers would do well to remember that, being a fecund species, reduced pack density often leads to larger litters and higher pup survival rates. Furthermore, as even the Montana Livestock Assn. noted nearly a century ago, only a small percentage of wolves kill livestock. Eliminate a well-behaved wolf pack, and it may quickly be replaced with one far less well-mannered.)

There is no good explanation for why the Fish and Wildlife Service gave its blessing to such provisions, other than simple weariness. Given the decades-long war to get wolves back on the ground, navigating an endless raft of sometimes violent harassment, it's easy to imagine even the most dedicated wildlife manager wanting nothing so much as to declare the project a success and move on. And technically, it is a success. Yet in failing to demand that the states manage wolves with at least a modicum of respect, the feds have all but guaranteed yet another long chapter of heartless persecution.

Last week, yet another wolf-hunting photo was posted on the Internet. This one shows a pair of Wyoming men who in early April chased two wolves by snowmobile, gunning them down near the town of Pinedale, becoming one of the first private parties to make a kill in the state's massive free-fire zone. Each man stands with his arms wrapped around the chest of a dead wolf, straining to hold it up for the camera. They seem proud, big grins spread across their faces. And not a trace of Aldo Leopold's regret.

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