Spring/Summer 2007, Volume 23.3
The Great American Predator
Stephen Markley is a freelance writer and a graduate of Miami University with degrees in history and creative writing. His work has appeared in Private Investigator’s Magazine, Midnight Times, and Inklings Magazine, and his column appears regularly on his website https://www.stephenmarkley.com. He currently lives in Chicago, Illinois.
In Jackson, Wyoming, you can find all the typical amenities of a western town turned tourist trap: The cowboy bars and leather stores, the rafting guides and mountain-gear shops, the endless hotels, motels, and RV campsites for every breed and color of out-of-towner. Bordering the southern edge of Grand Teton National Park (and to the north of that the wildly popular Yellowstone National Park), Jackson represents an eclectic mix of wealthy seasonal homeowners, ski bums, mountain-freaks, local color, and the working-class that keeps the town operating—and you’ll find them all. Make your way around town long enough and you’ll probably come across a car with a curious bumper sticker. In this case, the owner has stuck it in the upper right corner of the back window of an old Dodge pickup truck. It simply says, "Wolves: Government Sponsored Terrorists." There is no need to check the license plate; the truck undoubtedly belongs to a Wyoming native.
Here in Jackson, as well as every other corner of the Union’s least populous state, the gray wolf, now celebrating over a decade of its reintroduction to the lower forty-eight states, runs not just through sagebrush plains and dense forests but also through the arena of high politics. Since its release into Yellowstone back in 1994, the wolf has endured vicious levels of animosity from citizens and politicians alike, an animosity far disproportionate to the animal’s actual effect on its surroundings. Perhaps because Wyoming presents such an oxymoronic set of competing interests. On the one hand, the state contains two of our most popular National Parks, Grand Teton and Yellowstone. These parks, like all the rest, act as bastions for wildlife and are thus the primary stomping ground of naturalists and conservationists. Yet at the same time, Wyoming and its neighboring states, Idaho and Montana, are ranching and hunting country, two pastimes that do not welcome the competition of wolves.
These difficult, varied interests meet at the crossroads of the Yellowstone wolves.
Historically, the wolf has been a greatly feared and misunderstood creature. During the period of wolf extermination in the United States, hunters (known as "wolfers") did not just eradicate the animal but resorted to a number of ghastly methods to make their kills. Some wrapped pieces of chicken around large fishhooks and staked the trap near den sites so that pups unfortunate enough to swallow the hook might pull their stomachs out trying to free themselves. A few laced wolf kills with strychnine or left hunks of meat embedded with razor blades, nails, or glass.1
The National Park Service—the very agency that would spearhead the reintroduction—exterminated the last wolf in Yellowstone back in 1926 as a part of its predator control program. By the 1930s, the wolf, an animal that had once numbered as many as two million and had chased its prey from the forests of the East to the evergreens of the Pacific Northwest and every territory in between, had been wiped off the map in the lower forty-eight states.
What spurs the hatred of wolves? From where does this seemingly bottomless pool of animosity draw its reserves? To answer those questions, it is important to go back to the beginning of the movement to bring wolves back from the brink of extinction.
Famed scientist Aldo Leopold was the first to suggest a reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone as far back as 1944. The group Defenders of Wildlife followed him in 1960. In 1973, the wolf was finally given protected status thanks to the Endangered Species Act and its bleeding-heart, environmentalist champion, none other than Richard Nixon. The move to reintroduce the wolf to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) continued steadily with Defenders of Wildlife and the National Park Service pushing slowly ahead.
Finally, in 1991 the slow forward progress of the past two decades began to build steam. Ronald Reagan’s director of the National Park Service, William Penn Mott, went before congress, pressing the case for wolves in Yellowstone. By 1992 the government was seeking public comment and meetings across the northern Rockies, from Jackson to Helena, raged with the passions of both sides.
"Never," says Douglas Smith, the National Park Service’s wolf project leader in Yellowstone, "has there been more outreach to the public and more public comment over an endangered species issue." Smith is also the author of the book Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone. "The public outreach lasted ten years," he says. "There were over 160,000 public comments, the vast majority in favor of the reintroduction, not to mention over 30 public meetings with officials in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming."
Smith does not exaggerate when he says the majority of public opinion favored the wolves. A 1996 poll by Colorado State University, two years after the reintroduction, showed that between 75 and 82 percent of the public favored the project, a number that crossed party affiliation quite easily.
Even as the capture of 31 gray wolves from Canada began (biologically similar to the wolves that once roamed the wilds of Yellowstone), several lawsuits held up the actual introduction of the wolf to Yellowstone. Many critics scoffed at the Park Service’s effort, saying that the wolves would just strike out north for their Canadian home as soon as someone lifted the cage door. Like many of the naysayers’ other predictions about the wolves, this one proved utterly false as well.
Fourteen wolves were brought in three groups to Yellowstone in the spring of 1995, followed by seventeen more in 1996. Rather than fleeing north, the wolves flourished beyond all expectations. A third release had been planned, but due to the success of the initial animals, it was quickly abandoned. Population growth soared in the initial years, averaging 40-50 percent per year from 1995 until 2000 when it leveled to about 10-15 percent.2 Wolf biologists attribute this growth pattern to the typical expansion patterns of other animals: when the species numbers are well below the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, they succeed based on large amounts of food and low competition. Once that carrying capacity nears, the numbers begin to level off, which the slower growth of 2001-2003 seems to indicate (including the negative growth of 2004, when the population fell for the first time). Today, 170 wolves roam Yellowstone National Park and its nearby wilderness areas, a number Smith calls, "By any measure, a resounding success."
Additionally, over the last decade every one of the doomsday scenarios put forth by wolf opponents has failed to materialize. Mike Jimenez, a leader in the Wyoming Wolf Recovery Project for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, attributes these scenarios to the historic animosity toward wolves. "We have over 300 wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Recovery Area," says Jimenez. "That’s three times what the Environmental Impact Statement predicted, and still, in terms of cattle depredation and other scenarios, the wolves haven’t lived up to the [EIS] predictions."
Smith adds, "People genuinely said things like, ‘Once wolves go through the elk and livestock, they’ll move on to people.’ Of course, this did not happen." This is where Smith finds the most surprising development in the recovery of the wolves. "Myself and many others thought that once the wolves had been around for a while and people could see that this was not the end of the world, some of the animosity would die down." Sitting in his office in Mammoth Hot Springs, a room covered in photographs of wolves, he shakes his head. "Not only did that not happen, if anything, the controversy has increased."
In order to understand that controversy, one must first go back to the three tributaries that feed into people’s unassailable fear, hatred, and general misunderstanding of wolves. As Jimenez puts it, "The perception of wolves is at issue more than the wolves themselves. The wolf is symbolic of typical disputes: urban vs. rural, state government vs. federal, etcetera, etcetera."
One of the great fears held by wolf opponents is that they are contributing to the depletion of elk, thus acting as competition for the large number of hunters intent on scoring a trophy buck each season. Wyoming has an important hunting tradition—important enough that the sport accounts for a massive social and economic chunk of the state’s identity. Idaho and Montana—especially the regions bordering Wyoming—have similar traditions. In a lawsuit brought against the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state of Wyoming claims a loss of $225,000 in hunting license revenues because of a decrease in "hunter opportunity" and an overall loss of $2.9 million in hunter expenditures to the Wyoming economy.3
The elk issue, however, has a much more complicated background than the lawsuit allows. While it is certainly true that elk comprise the primary meal for wolves (92 percent of their kills during the winter4), the predator-prey relationship is by no means as simple as "Wolves are wiping out elk."
First of all, it does not take a Ph.D.-wielding biologist to tell you that a predator will not hunt its primary source of food to extinction. If elk were suddenly to be wiped out from Yellowstone, for instance, the wolf population would plummet as a result of its primary prey suddenly vanishing. Secondly, the absence of predators from Yellowstone had led to historic highs of prey populations (including elk) in the early nineties before the reintroduction began. In fact, one of the aims of introducing wolves was to naturally reduce the elk population rather than to rely once again on liberalized hunting regulations.
Most importantly, however, the reduction in elk is by no means uniform. Certain herds show losses, while others that also support elk-wolf interactions show gains in the elk populations (certain hunting districts in Montana for instance), and still others show declines in the elk populations where no wolf packs are active. What conclusion can be drawn from all this?
"We’re still ferreting that out," says Smith.
The predator-prey relationship between wolves and elk will likely be a hot topic of study for the Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife for many years to come. An in-depth report on the wolf recovery, issued by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, points out that the idea of a harmonic predator-prey balance may have "more to do with human perception than ecological reality." Based on studies of wolf-prey relationships in areas like Isle Royale and Denali, the study notes large back-and-forth swings in wolf and prey numbers, depending on a number of factors, including disease and weather.5
The second arena of controversy, and the one that surely draws the most media attention, is that of livestock depredation. Prior to the reintroduction, one of the most widespread concerns was that wolves would decimate cattle and sheep, affecting the livelihood of ranchers, one of the largest, most vocal special interests in the tri-state area. True to expectations of both ranchers and the Park Service, wolves have indeed preyed on livestock.
"It was never a surprise that wolves would kill livestock," says Jimenez. "When we wrote the plan back in ’94 we planned for that, and we’ve held up our end of the bargain. If a pack becomes a chronic problem, then we remove it, and we remove problem wolves."
In addition to the Park Service’s vigilance in controlling wolves that experiment with livestock as prey, Defenders of Wildlife continues to reimburse ranchers for losses, going as far as to pay the fall market value for a calf killed in the spring (based on its speculative weight). Defenders has paid out over $640,000 to assuage the effects of wolf-induced depredation.
"Rather than butting heads, we try to find a way to work with the ranching community," says Suzanne Asha Stone, Defenders of Wildlife’s representative for the Northern Rockies. "Ranchers then have a greater level of tolerance for wolves."
However, the impact of wolves on cattle and sheep is negligible, if not non-existent. In 2004, for example, wolves claimed 209 sheep, 57 cattle, and six other animals (Defenders compensated for this loss to the tune of $70,000), well below the 0.1 percent prediction of livestock losses from wolf predation predicted by the EIS.6 In other words, wolves barely constitute a drop in the bucket of livestock loss, and economically it is not an issue. Like with many issues surrounding the wolves, misinformation runs rampant, and the spotlight tends to focus with harsh scrutiny on any livestock lost to wolves.
"It seems like every single time a wolf makes a livestock kill, it’s on the front page of every paper in the region," says Smith.
Case in point: A front page story in the July 1-2, 2006, issue of the Jackson Hole Daily, proclaimed in bold lettering "Wolves eating more livestock." The article, by staff writer Cory Hatch, goes on to assert that "Wolf predations on livestock have increased dramatically since 2003," which he follows with the evidence that in 2004, 20 of 27 packs killed livestock and in 2005 32 packs did.
As Smith points out, though, this type of reasoning is disingenuous. The article gives evidence that more wolves are killing livestock, but not that there is any great rise in livestock loss. Meanwhile, livestock loss is still below what the EIS predicted for a population of just over 100 wolves even though the population shot to 300.
Yet simply because livestock loss does little economic harm does not mean that livestock loss isn’t a problem that needs not be dealt with. Lane Adamson was a rancher within the GYE for over 40 years, raising cattle and horses. He is careful to put in perspective why the loss of a calf to wolf predation goes beyond the economic issue.
"It goes beyond the economic impact to social and emotional levels," he says. Adamson stresses that because of proximity to the park and dispersal routes of wolves, it is the same ranchers who must deal with wolf predation over and over again. Additionally, he adds that the emotional toll is sometimes hard to understand for non-ranchers.
"As soon as you lose a calf, you feel like you have to be out there every day watching over [the cattle]. It’s a burden that takes a tremendous emotional toll. These aren’t just animals, they’re part of your family. I’ve been in the mud giving a calf mouth-to-mouth resuscitation before, doing everything I can to keep these suckers alive. Then to just have some cock-eyed wolf come along and kill it…."
Jimenez adds that the ranchers he’s spoken with view wolves as one of the few preventable threats to their livestock. "Cattle die in so many ways," he says. "They feel as if this is one factor they can control."
"If a child dies in a car accident," says Adamson, "you can always go to the statistics that say only so many children die this way in car accidents and it’s really not a problem. But it matters to that family of the child. Matters a whole lot."
Adamson now belongs to Defenders of Wildlife’s Livestock Advisory Council. The purpose of the council is to inform the organization about the ranching perspective in its work. Reluctant at first, Adamson soon decided that it gave the group a larger perspective when working with the ranching community. "I’m not pro-wolf," says Adamson, "and probably never will be. I think it was an ill-conceived plan that didn’t have the support of the locals. But I think the council is a real positive step. It gives [Defenders] the ranching perspective." Currently, according to Adamson, they are working to expand the council from four to six members.
Unfortunately, Defenders is one of the few groups trying to build bridges, rather than sitting on its bank and hurling rocks at the other side. Its reimbursement for wolf predation and continued work with non-lethal methods for ranchers to keep wolves away from sheep and cattle constitutes one of the most positive steps made to alleviate the concerns of those citizens who feel as though they went without consideration during the reintroduction.
Says Smith, "If we could’ve done one thing differently, it would be the way the plan was presented. It’s definitely been demonstrated that there is a local perception that the federal government forced this upon them."
Adamson summarizes this notion best by saying, "People from New York, Houston, San Francisco, they supported [the plan] but they don’t bear the brunt of it."
These different perceptions—that wolves are hunting game animals to extinction and preying on livestock all because of outsiders tampering with a backyard that did not belong to them—mingle and coagulate to form the hornet’s nest that is the wolf issue.
In Wyoming, everyone has his or her opinion of the wolves, and for the most part, that opinion is not favorable. Ed Bangs is the Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His job is to get wolves removed from the endangered species list, a task that has been made highly difficult by the state of Wyoming.
"The wolf population is recovered," says Bangs, "and now the best management lies with the state and game agencies."
However, management remains with the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Yellowstone wolves long ago reached the necessary numbers for de-listing. But before that could occur, the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming had to develop plans on the state level for ensuring the protection of the wolves. Montana complied. Idaho complied. Although, Defenders’ Stone feels Idaho’s plan has serious problems, beginning with its first action, which was to kill 50 wolves in the Clearwater River Drainage. Wyoming remains the only state with a plan the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deems unsatisfactory for protecting the wolves.
"It’s hard," says Jimenez with a sigh, "to sort the politics of this out."
Hard as it may be, it’s prudent to begin with Wyoming’s plan and why the likes of Bangs, Jimenez, Stone, Smith, and the federal government find it unreasonable. Led by Democratic governor, Dave Freudenthal, Wyoming’s wolf management plan hinges on the animal’s classification.
Within the boundaries of the two National Parks, the Tetons and Yellowstone, the animal would be protected. Within an expanded area, it would be listed as a "trophy animal," which the state maintains at a certain level. Outside of these areas, however, the wolf would then fall into the completely unprotected category of "predatory animal," a group that includes those species considered to have a negative impact on Wyoming’s economy. The wolf—an animal brought back from virtual extinction in the lower 48 states—would join jackrabbits, porcupines, skunks, and stray cats under this classification.
Freudenthal maintains that pack numbers would be monitored and held at a minimum of 15 packs. If that number were to drop below seven, trophy status would be extended to a wider region. He also stresses that when the plan was submitted to 11 experts, ten said it would lead to a sustainable wolf population.
Smith disagrees. "Just because [the reviewers] found the plan acceptable, does not mean it’s a good plan," he says. "The problem is predatory status means you can kill a wolf any time for any reason, and you don’t have to report the kills. So how do you know if you’ve dropped below 15 packs if no one reports the kill?"
According to Smith, wolves are not that difficult to kill. A hunter could simply use a predator call on an open sagebrush flat and make several quick kills with a rifle.
"You could easily wipe out five packs in a week before anyone even found out," says Smith, who sees little sense in bringing the wolf off the endangered species list only to declare open season on it.
"Protection in the parks alone won’t work," says Bangs. "The boundaries of Yellowstone aren’t enough to sustain a wolf population. They need protection outside of the parks."
Wyoming, led by Governor Freudenthal, has sued again and again, tying up the status of the wolf in court, and thus ensuring that, for the time being, it will remain on the Endangered Species list, while the politics sort themselves out.
"It doesn’t help that the gubernatorial race featured two candidates trying to out-do each other on how anti-wolf they are," says Stone, referring to Freudenthal and his 2006 Republican opponent, Ray Hunkins, a Wheatland lawyer and rancher.
Hunkins continuously attacked Freudenthal for having worked with Bruce Babbit (Reagan’s secretary of the Interior, who helped pave the way for the wolf reintroduction), and was a vigorous proponent of dual classification for the wolf, as well as reducing the species territory and numbers. However, late in the campaign, Hunkins attempted to outmaneuver his opponent by proposing negotiation with the feds rather than litigation as a solution, claiming that a Republican governor could better deal with a Republican executive branch.
Naturally, Freudenthal jumped on the word "negotiation," comparing it to "capitulation." The conservative ranching community, so important to Wyoming politics, was then left with the puzzling question of who to support: their brethren, Hunkins, or Freudenthal, the man whose policy of no surrender they support. The wolf politics go on and on. In November 2006, the incumbent Freudenthal won re-election by a comfortable margin. As Bangs says, "If you’re going to be elected in Wyoming, you have to be anti-wolf."
Lost in the heated, frenzied, winner-take-all wolf debate—like a child trying to tell his or her feuding parents that the house is on fire—are some of the benefits, both clear and emerging, that wolves have brought in the last decade.
As Aldo Leopold made clear as early as 1944, predators have ecological value. They belong in natural systems, and it is a human-bred misconception that they are mere pests.
Although all the benefits of returning wolves to Yellowstone will likely go untallied for another decade or two, scientists are beginning to sort through the data already. Due to the clamp wolves put on the previously uncontrolled foraging of elk, three important woody species have begun to see a large-scale recovery: cottonwood, aspen, and willow. The ongoing willow recovery has aided the beaver, an ecologically important animal because they create beaver ponds, unique habitats that support all number of species, from reptiles to birds to moose. Riparian zones, the area beyond beaver ponds, also support species that have no other home in nature.7 And what’s to link all of this to wolves? The recovery of willow has been most specifically linked to areas where elk have learned they make easy targets for wolves. This "spotty recovery," as Smith puts it in his book, offers an impressive link between wolves and the return of the Yellowstone ecosystem to its historic, pre-European settlement origins.
Additionally, wolf kills do not just feed wolves but scavenging creatures such as bald eagles, ravens, bluebirds, and a number of others. This trickle-down effect—the way one animal can re-invent and invigorate an entire ecosystem—is known as a trophic cascade. The wolf-based cascade is still under debate by scientists, but the evidence is strong and the prospect of future research exciting. Of course, there are those—politicians and ranchers, most likely—who will say, "Oh, gee, willow studies. How enthralling when the state economy is being jeopardized."
What this attitude fails to take into account, though, is what this research tells us about our ecosystems, our land, and the environment upon which humans depend just as much as any other creature.
Furthermore, while the negative economic impact of wolves is still debatable, the positive impact is real and largely ignored. The wolf re-introduction was one of the most brazen conservation success stories of our time and has brought additional visitors from all over the world to Yellowstone—visitors who must eat, stay in lodging, and otherwise pump money into the Wyoming economy. From former presidents to rapper DMX, wolves have proven to inspire, fascinate, and compel the public. As Stone puts it, "Wolves are a species people will rally around."
Perhaps this has something to do with the image of the wolf, which has evolved a long way from the menacing villain of the first three to four centuries of European settlement in the Americas. Today, more and more, people see this cunning, powerful predator as an integral part of not only the ecosystems to which it has been restored, but of this country’s great natural heritage. In the end, the issue of the wolf in the Northern Rockies does not come down to livestock depredation, hunting licenses, overreaching federal government, tourism, or any of the myriad other arguments that ensue at the sight of the right bumper sticker.
"Wolves are more than just wolves. How you feel about wolves reflects a philosophical viewpoint," says Smith. "Either you think that people are a part of the natural world as much as anything else and have a certain responsibility to it, or that the world is here for people to use as they see fit."
As the legal battle over the wolves slogs on, this philosophical debate will rage as well, on bumper stickers and in the courthouse, in National Parks and oil rigs, in tourist traps and towns without stoplights; and meanwhile the wolves will run, hungry and wild, all the while unaware that their fate remains, as it has for hundreds of years, in the hands of humans.
1 Douglas Smith and Gary Ferguson. Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone. Guilford, Connecticut: The Lyons Press, 2005, 13.
2 "Ten Years of Yellowstone Wolves: 1995-2005." Yellowstone Science. Vol. 13, no. 1. Winter 2005, 18-21.
3 Wynn, James. "Governor: state won’t back down in wolf debate." The Riverton Ranger. May 28, 2006.
4 Ibid, Yellowstone Science, 36-37.
5 Peck, Brian. Greater Yellowstone Wolf Recovery: Separating Myth from Reality. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, 2004, 40.
6 Ibid, Yellowstone Science, 40-41
7 Ibid, Smith and Ferguson, 137-40.