Environment: Guess Who's Loping in for Dinner?

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1994

Environment: Guess Who's Loping in for Dinner?

Under fire from every direction, the feds are finally set to put the gray wolf back in the West
By Amy Linn

Ask Rénee Askins what her enemies have been saying about government plans to reintroduce wolves to the West, and the tawny-haired, 35-year-old founder of the Wolf Fund--one of the most powerful pro-wolf groups in the country--strides past the leering Canis lupus hide spilling over the TV in her Jackson, Wyoming, headquarters, pokes around near a stack of wolf posters, emerges with a boom box, and plays a recording of a recent call to the office.

"I'm gonna kill all the wolves and shoot you bitches!" shouts a man who sounds drunk enough to mean it. Askins raises her eyebrows; as if on cue, her German shepherd, Mocha, does the same.

"The current reintroduction plans came out of 20 years of negotiation, clashing, and arguing," says Askins, hoping to re-route the discussion. The dog groans and settles under a chair. "What we have now represents a compromise that I fully believe will work. But the truth is, no one is completely happy with it."

That's an understatement. Ever since the gray wolf was placed on the endangered spe- cies list in 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has struggled to find the right means and sites for its reintroduction to the West. The focus has been (and is) on releasing animals in northwestern Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park and in central Idaho's Salmon River country, a first step toward scattering the species throughout the upper Rockies. The very idea, of course, has caused apoplexy among hunters, ranchers, and their congressional allies. Ironically, it was a Reagan administration policy change--a 1982 amendment to the Endangered Species Act creating so-called experimental nonessential status for some reintroduced spe- cies, which under special circumstances lets citizens kill "problem" animals--that made the sales pitch start to work.

Now, after seven years of exhaustive planning and a record-breaking 160,284 public comments on the reintroduction blueprint, it may be about to happen. In June, Fish and Wildlife's plan won wholehearted approval from Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt; next month, the government hopes to capture 30 Canadian wolves for placement in Yellowstone and Idaho. By 2002, if all goes smoothly, more than 250 of these most revered and reviled predators would be restored to their historic biological niche, partly making up for the extermination frenzy that erased them from the American West by 1926.

With an issue this controversial, though, things rarely go smoothly. Babbitt had barely capped his pen when wolf haters and a surprising number of wolf lovers started cursing the plan and speed-dialing lawyers. "I don't call this flexible. I call it a hoax," says Larry Bourret, executive vice-president of the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation, which has vowed to sue on the grounds that Fish and Wildlife didn't adequately address "the real impacts of reintroduction." Distressed by the fact that "experimental" status would strip reintroduced and already-present wolves of important endangered-species protections, several environmental groups have been blasting the plan, and some are talking lawsuit. At press time, of various possible legal strategies under consideration in the enviro camp, the approach gathering the most steam was one being explored by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, whose lawyers were promising to sue over the plan in Idaho. They'll argue, among other things, that wild wolves already live in the state and that it would be a violation of the Endangered Spe- cies Act to downgrade their status. The Sierra Club, the Idaho Conservation League, the Wilderness Society, and the Bozeman, Montana-based Predator Project have all announced that they'll join SCLDF's suit if it is filed.

Environmentalists who are peeved about the plan say that it gives wolf-haters too much leeway to cause trouble. Problem one is the government-proposed "wolf recovery zone," which spans more than 45,000 square miles of national parks, national forests, wilderness areas, and Nez Percé reservation lands. The moment reintroduction starts, protection of all the wolves in that vast territory would slip a notch. Experimental status means, among other things, that citizens could legally harass wolves by firing shotguns over their heads or chasing them with cars--as long as they report and justify their actions to Fish and Wildlife. Ranchers who catch wolves killing livestock inside the zone could shoot them.

Problem two is that wolves have reintroduced themselves already--using their own legs. Montana, according to state wildlife biologists, is home to 65 wolves that have migrated south from Canada over the past 15 years. At least one Montana wolf made it to Wyoming (it was killed in 1992 by a hunter who says he mistook it for a coyote); a "wolf-like" animal was filmed that same year in Yellowstone; and, according to environmental groups, wolves have been seen in Idaho as recently as July. Reintroduction is fine, say the plan's pro-wolf critics, but wolves that have made it on their own shouldn't be placed at risk.

Against these complaints, Fish and Wildlife--as well as satisfied environmentalists like Rénee Askins--argue that reduced protection is the only politically viable way to bring wolves back. The scheme has already been used to reintroduce red wolves in North Carolina, and it could make wolves more acceptable to people who see them as spotted owls with fur. To be sure, plenty of western congressmen are grumbling about the plan, but so far they haven't done anything to stop it--in part because they like the idea of the wolf returning without full ESA shielding. As Senator Alan Simpson, the conservative Wyoming Republican, has put it, "Could've been worse.... Left-wing environmental groups are terribly pained by this plan, so I'm sure we're better off than I would have expected."

Askins maintains that the dire predictions coming from both sides are exaggerated. If government research is accurate, most ranchers won't feel much bite. Fish and Wildlife predicts that wolves will kill only about one-quarter of one percent of the livestock in their range. Ranchers who do lose animals will be fully reimbursed from a Defenders of Wildlife fund, which has been active for seven years and so far has had to pay out only $16,000. (Wolves in Montana, according to state biologists, have killed an average of four cattle or sheep a year.)

Similarly, environmentalists may have less to fear than they think. Under the plan, citizens could shoot wolves only if they caught them in the act of mauling livestock, which is not an easy task. They would also have to call Fish and Wildlife within 24 hours and produce a properly mangled carcass that says "wolf attack" loud and clear. Harassing or killing a wolf without justifiable cause would be grounds for prosecution. And anybody who wants to bother wolves has to find them first. "In entire careers," says Askins, "some wildlife biologists see only a half-dozen wolves in the wild."

What's really needed, adds Ed Bangs, the Helena, Montana-based leader of Fish and Wildlife's wolf-reintroduction project, is for everyone to calm down. "Wolves aren't going to eat your kids," says Bangs, who spends his time getting ready for the day, which he hopes will arrive soon, when the government pinpoints healthy wolves in British Columbia or Alberta, darts them from a helicopter, and trucks or flies them to Idaho and Wyoming. In Yellowstone, he says, 15 wolves will spend about two months settling down in one-acre pens and eating, in all, more than a ton of road-killed elk and deer before they're sent loping into the woods. And after that?

"After that," he says, "there'll be a couple of years of hysteria."

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