There’s a lot more to restoring an endangered species than simply getting enough animals to breed in the wild. They return to a changed area, narrower and more hostile, where humans occupy more space. Sometimes this works out fine; the bald eagle has been a stunning success story. The return of the gray wolf to the northern Rockies looked as though it would be similarly inspiring, with the wolf’s numbers rising from an original 66 to about 1,700. It still could be, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been too willing to see the multimillion-dollar wolf program set back by agreements with states that allow widespread hunting. Now it’s about to happen again, this time in Wyoming.
Once an animal is removed from the endangered list, its future depends on state agreements to manage and maintain the species. None of the plans for gray wolves has been ideal. Since they were originally delisted in Montana and Idaho, hundreds of them have been shot and killed. But Wyoming’s plan is the worst — so bad in its original incarnation that the government would not allow the animal to be delisted there.
The new agreement, which the federal government is expected to approve, is only somewhat better. Wyoming would be responsible for maintaining no fewer than 10 breeding pairs of the wolves, and no more than 100 wolves total, in a small area of the state outside of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Hunting of the wolves would be allowed in that area, but only during a limited season. Outside of that northwest corner of the state, which represents about a fifth of its land, the wolf would be considered a predator, subject to wanton hunting. There are an estimated 230 Wyoming wolves outside of the two parks, and the state’s intention is to significantly reduce that population by the end of the year.
There’s natural concern, in a ranching state, over the prospect of wolves feasting on cattle, and hunters who seek elk consider the wolves competition. But killing wolves that attack herds has always been allowed, and the problem has been far less common than Wyoming ranchers had expected. Wolves also can play an important role in helping to keep coyote populations in check.
A tighter plan than this is needed, as well as a revisiting of all state plans over time to ensure that the wolf population remains healthy. The purpose of spending millions of dollars to bring endangered species back to their natural roles in the wild should not be to forever keep them teetering on the edge of decline.