Thanks to the Trump Administration’s delisting of wolves, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho had the chance to lead in the management of wolf recovery, and in the process prove that Western states could, and should, take back forest and wildlife public lands management from the feds.
Instead they promptly showed that when it came to the disastrous predator removal policies initiated 150-years ago, they had “learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”
The state agencies’ policies are especially bad for elk and cattle because wolves and other predators are the best natural control for the brucellosis and CWD epidemics rampaging through Yellowstone’s deer, elk and bison herds.
Hunters have killed more than 500 wolves in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming in recent months
Hunters are killing gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains in numbers not seen since the animals were driven to near extinction in the continental United States in the 20th century. The killing of more than 500 wolves in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming in recent months—including nearly 20% of the wolves that sometimes range outside of Yellowstone National Park—threatens to undermine a decades-old effort to restore the predators to the landscape and disrupt a long-term Yellowstone research project that has produced influential findings on how wolves help shape ecosystems. Researchers and conservation groups are calling on government officials to rethink the hunts, which have eliminated about 16% of the wolves living in the three states.
The loss of the Yellowstone wolves “is a huge setback,” says wildlife biologist Doug Smith of the National Park Service, who leads the park’s wolf restoration and study project, which began in 1995. “We had in Yellowstone one of the best models for understanding the behaviors and dynamics of a wolf population unexploited by humans.” Now, he says, researchers will “do what we can to keep the science going—what we have left of it.”
The killings are the result of a change in legal protections for Canis lupus. For decades, the wolves were strictly protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), but more than 10 years ago successful restoration efforts prompted federal officials to ease protections and give state governments a greater say in managing the species. With wolf numbers in the northern Rockies reaching about 3100 in late 2020, several states have legalized or expanded wolf hunts. Legislators in Montana, for example, last year set a goal of shrinking the state’s wolf population to “at least 15 breeding pairs,” the minimum required by the ESA; state rules allow a person to kill up to 20 wolves each season. Idaho also aims to shrink its wolf population and has set no kill limits. Wyoming has nearly achieved its goal of maintaining just 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs outside of Yellowstone (where hunting is barred).
Biologists say the recent killings won’t cause the regional extinction of wolves, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced in fall of 2021 that it would begin a 12-month review to determine whether “potential increases in human-caused mortality may pose a threat” to the species. The killings do, however, promise to alter the social structure of wolf packs—and reshape the Yellowstone study, which has produced high-profile findings on how the return of wolves has affected willows, aspen, and cottonwoods as well as elk, songbird, and scavenger populations. As of 31 January, hunters had killed 24 of the roughly 125 wolves that use the park, including five that carried electronic tracking collars placed by scientists. Nineteen were killed in Montana outside the park’s northern borders, where officials had recently lifted quotas, and five were killed in Idaho and Wyoming.