By Juliet Eilperin
Most wolves in the continental United States soon will be off federal assistance.
For more than 300 years, trappers and settlers did their best to exterminate wolves, for their pelts and to protect livestock. They were so successful that only a few hundred gray wolves were left in the lower 48 states when they were listed as an endangered species in 1973.
Now the wolves are back, with roughly 6,000 in the contiguous United States and 7,700 to 11,200 in Alaska. The Obama administration has declared all but two small populations — Mexican gray wolves in New Mexico and Arizona, and red wolves in North Carolina — fully recovered. On Oct. 1, Wyoming will become the fifth state with a significant wolf population to legalize hunting.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe called the wolf comeback “a great success,” but it means that wolves are now fair game, and he noted that not everyone likes the idea of killing them. “¦
But how many wolves are enough?
The Fish and Wildlife Service approved plans in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming that require them to maintain a minimum of 450 adults and 45 breeding pairs of wolves. The population now stands at 1,774 adults and 109 breeding pairs, and the agency projects that hunting will bring the number of adults down to about 1,000.
“It’s hard to fathom that you can be deserving of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act on September 30 and on October 1 be open fire,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife.
Ken McDonald, chief of wildlife at the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, said the state aims to keep around 400 gray wolves on the landscape to minimize conflict with ranchers and hunters, who have complained when wolves attacked either livestock or deer and elk.
Montana’s wolf population actually rose 15 percent after last year’s hunting season, to a total of at least 650, prompting the state to allow unlimited hunting of wolves between Sept. 1 and Feb. 28. It also has allowed trapping for the first time.
“Despite the hype, we didn’t go out and wipe them out at the first opportunity,” said McDonald, adding that wildlife managers are seeking “a balance” in which wolves exist but don’t threaten cattle or big-game populations.
Scientists say that wolves play a key role in the ecosystem. Aspen trees in Yellowstone National Park suffered in the decades when wolves were absent, and began to thrive when wolves came back and kept leaf-eating elk in check. Since wolves were reintroduced there in the mid-90s, browsing on the tallest aspens researchers surveyed declined by more than 75 percent, according to Oregon State University ecologist William J. Ripple. This produced other ripple effects, including cooler streams shaded by trees and more vibrant beaver and bison populations that had more plants to eat.
“Rather than just maintaining enough wolves to keep them from going extinct, what researchers and managers should consider is how many wolves would it take for them to be effective at influencing the ecosystem,” Ripple said. “What does it take to keep the prey populations in check, in order to maintain healthy plant communities?”
But it is unclear how much tolerance some local residents have for wolves, especially in the northern Rockies and the Southwest. Wolves have made gains in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin without sparking much controversy. There are more than 4,000 in those states, with an estimated 2,921 in Minnesota alone.
But after a Forest Service employee in Idaho posted a photo of himself with a wolf that he had trapped and shot, wolf activists erupted in outrage. And last week several groups filed notice of their intent to sue, challenging Wyoming’s right to manage wolves on grounds including that its plan would allow for wolves to be treated as predators — and shot on sight — in most of the state.
Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity, said that federal officials have declared wolves recovered not because they had finished the job but “because they want to avoid the political controversy that wolves generate.”
Neil Thagard, a big-game hunter based in Cody, Wyo., who serves as Western outreach director for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said people should let the wildlife managers decide the appropriate level for wolves and allow them to use the tools they need, including hunting. He added that many of his fellow hunters exaggerate wolves’ impact on both livestock and game.
Ashe acknowledged that the Fish and Wildlife Service had not figured out how to overcome the fact than some people in the rural West view wolves more as a threat than an asset. “If I could wave a magic wand and go back to the early ’90s, I think we had the biology right, but we didn’t build the social context for wolf conservation before we put wolves out on the landscape,” he said. “¦
In the Southwest, the road to recovery was even more daunting. In 1998, federal authorities released 11 Mexican gray wolves into the Arizona wilderness and, 14 years later, there are only 58.
Chris Bagnoli, interagency field team leader for the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s Mexican Wolf Reintroduction Project, ticked off a long list of obstacles to the Mexican wolf’s recovery: ineffective management, illegal wolf kills, effects on livestock and game, the population’s genetic viability and health and human safety. The New Mexico Game and Fish Department, which declined comment, stopped working with federal officials to help the Mexican wolf in June 2011.
While Defenders of Wildlife has financed several programs aimed at helping cattle ranchers coexist with wolves — hiring range riders, putting up fences and compensating for lost cattle — many ranchers are losing patience with the reintroduction program. “¦
By the end of the month, Fish and Wildlife will have to determine if the Mexican gray wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf, rather than a “distinct population segment.” Colorado and Utah are fighting the subspecies designation on the grounds that it could lead to Mexican wolves expanding their range into their states. And wolves that wander out of their established areas — into the Pacific Northwest, for example — are still protected as endangered under federal law.
Defenders of Wildlife’s Clark, who helped release wolves raised in captivity into an enclosure in Arizona’s Apache National Forest 14 years ago when she headed the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the thrill she’s felt seeing wolf populations rebound has been tempered by her sorrow as the animals have failed to gain social acceptance. Wolf watching has become a tourist draw in Yellowstone and has spawned many “tchotchkes” in the concession stores, she noted, but beyond the park’s borders there are clear limits on how many wolves will be tolerated.
A century ago, Americans fought wolves for dominance of the landscape and “we won.” Now, she added, “We have to find a way to balance the needs of nature with the needs of humans.”
To read the full article published by the Washington Post, click here.
This article was also published in:
Las Cruces Sun-News
Santa Fe New Mexican
Please write a letter to the editor today, thanking these papers for the story and urging more releases of captive wolves to increase the wild population’s genetic health and size.
The letters to the editor page is one of the most widely read, influential parts of the newspaper. One letter from you can reach thousands of people and will also likely be read by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tips for writing your letter are below, but please write in your own words, from your own experience.
Letter Writing Tips & Talking Points
Below are a few suggestions for ensuring your message gets through clearly-your letter will be most effective if you focus on a few key points, so don’t try to use all of these. If you need additional help or want someone to review your letter before you send it, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Start by thanking the paper for publishing this article. This makes your letter immediately relevant and increases its chances of being published.
* Convey how important new releases of Mexican wolves into the wild are to increase the population’s numbers and genetic health. At only around 58 wolves, the wild population is extremely small and vulnerable to threats such as disease, inbreeding, or natural events. But the US Fish and Wildlife Service has not released new Mexican wolves to the wild since November 2008 and now wants to remove a wolf with four pups from the wild over livestock. This will not help the wild population.
* Tell readers why you support wolves and stress that the majority of New Mexico and Arizona voters support the Mexican wolf reintroduction. Polling showed 69% support in New Mexico and 77% support in Arizona.
* Urge the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to end the freeze on more releases of captive Mexican wolves into the wild. Releases of captive wolves must happen now to prevent another extinction in the wild; the number of wild wolves must increase to reduce their vulnerability.
* Encourage the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service to use all the means available to them to expedite more releases of captive wolves into the wild. The agency has been sitting on an Environmental Assessment that can end the ridiculous rule prohibiting new releases into New Mexico and letting wolves eligible for release into both Arizona and New Mexico sit in captivity. The stalling has to stop.
* Explain that there are Mexican wolves in captivity ready to be released and wolves in the wild that do not have mates. These wolves need more releases to form more new breeding pairs and families.
* Talk about your personal connection to wolves and why the issue is important to you. If you’re a grandmother wanting your grandchildren to have the opportunity to hear wolves in the wild, or a hunter who recognizes that wolves make game herds healthier, or a businessperson who knows that wolves have brought millions in ecotourism dollars to Yellowstone, say so.
* Reiterate the ecological benefits of wolves to entire ecosystems and all wildlife. Wildlife biologists believe that Mexican wolves will improve the overall health of the Southwest and its rivers and streams — just as the return of gray wolves to Yellowstone has helped restore balance to its lands and waters.
* Keep your letter brief, between 150-300 words, depending on the paper’s limit.
* Provide your name, address, occupation, and phone number; your full address, occupation, and phone number will not be published, but they are required in order to have your letter published.
* For more information, contact us at email@example.com
You can submit your letter to:
Las Cruces Sun-News (300 words or less)
Santa Fe New Mexican (150 words or less)
Please send us a copy of your letter as well, so that we can track the actions taken to save these wonderful animals. Thank you!
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