The great wolf debate: hunt them down or let them flourish?

The reintroduction of wolves into the wild is proving controversial
Long a symbol of the US wilderness - and a totem for the environmental movement - wolves are now the focus of a bitter conflict between those who want to increase the species' numbers and those that want to kill them

The hills are covered in snow. The mountains' jagged edges force remembrance of the difficult terrain that surrounds Idaho’s landscape. This is wolf territory, but for many American government officials, the reintroduction of wolves in a number of states has led to overpopulation of the species. This led to the controversial green light being given for wolf hunting seasons last year - all in the name of 'conservation,' officials argued.

The story begins back in 1995, when Idaho reintroduced a number of gray wolves into the state as part of the 'experimental, non-essential' clause of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). From there the animals developed and grew in numbers across the state as wildlife biologists helped support the small ecosystems that were developed for the animals’ use.

In North-Central Idaho in the United States Pacific Northwest, the Nez Perce Native American tribe also started their own project, which enabled a pack of wolves to live and create familial ties in a large fenced-in area. One of the biologists leading the project, Loren Kronemann, believes it was through the concerted efforts of biologists and the wolves themselves that they were successful in seeing the population grow.

'It was an amazing effort by our team of biologists, who helped maintain the health of the animals, studied their movement and behavior, which ultimately led to their complete reintroduction into the wild,' he told The Ecologist.

A threat to humans?

According to statistics, in 2005 there were around 1,000 wolves in the state. Despite the progress and apparent success – the last wolf was seen in Yellowstone National Park way back in 1926 – the state government and many citizens opposed the move, saying it would threaten human populations.

'The state was not to excited about the project at the beginning, but these are endangered animals who initially became extinct in the state because of human development,' said Kronemann.

Idaho and the northwest are not the only places where wolves have become a tipping point. In the Midwest, in the state of Michigan, governments have struggled to deal with a growing population - and the corresponding anger among the human population.

To solve what local governments say is the overpopulation of wolves, they instituted a hunting season against the animals. Towards the end of the summer last year, wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains were taken off the Endangered Species Act and then put on the list of animals hunters could legitimately go after.

According to conservationists on the ground, the result was that in Idaho and neighboring states, entire packs were killed. 'What we saw was hunters going after packs of wolves as a team because it was easier to kill individuals that way,' said Idaho-based environmentalist Simon White. He monitored the situation for months and was disappointed by the government’s refusal to put the waning number of wolves back on the ESA.

Law in action

The hunting was forced to stop, however, after Earthjustice - a non-profit public interest law firm based in the United States that specialises in cases protecting natural resources, safeguarding public health, and promoting clean energy – filed a lawsuit in August against the removal of wolves from the ESA. They won, forcing state legislators to once again ban hunting of the embattled wolves.

This ban on hunting has not ended governments’ attempts to put wolves back in the line of fire however. Idaho submitted a wolf-killing proposal that would have left only a handful of the animals in the North-Central area of the state, the NGO claimed.

Now many officials are attempting to resort to what they have termed 'conservation hunts' aimed at reducing the population to a manageable number that 'protects their stability and longevity.'

According to the Idaho director of Wildlife Services, Mark Collinge: 'As the wolf populations increase, the depredations increase and the number of wolf removals will increase. It’s very logical … you just have to accept that part of having wolves is having to kill wolves.' Somewhat bizarrely, the Wildlife Services have even gone so far as to lobby the US federal government for permission to kill wolves to 'maintain the animal on the ESA.'

Currently, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service is contemplating an Idaho request to do just that, in order to monitor the populations on the ground. Late last year, US Congressmen announced they would introduce a sweeping plan that would eliminate all federal protection for wolves. Their move has been seen by conservationists across the country as stepping back on the initial reasons for the 1973 adoption of the ESA.

'It’s not clear when Congress will take up these measures, nor how far they’re likely to go,' said Earthjustice in a statement on the matter issued in December.

Conservation contradictions

If successful in their lobby efforts, Idaho would once again be allowed to remove wolves from protection and enable hunters to go after wolves.

For biologists such as Kronemann, killing wolves in order to protect them is contradictory. The Idaho biologist told The Ecologist that he believes it is simply fear that is driving government officials to push for hunting as a way to resolve the situation.

Mark David, a University of Washington environment professor and wolf expert said that the governments in the country are missing the point. 'What they are doing is attempting to strike fear in the public after a few isolated incidents of wolves attacking local livestock,' he said. 'They don’t see the larger picture of what is happening here in terms of over-hunting in general and the decline of a food source for the wolves.'

He argues that wildlife experts are using hunting of wolves as a 'cop-out' to the real problem on the ground: over-hunting. 'In the past few years, we have seen the number of prey animals be reduced because officials are unable to enforce quotas and hunters are killing more animals than they are allowed,' he said.

When this happens, David said, 'We see predators creep ever closer to local populations where there are food sources available. Unfortunately, this has meant local industry has suffered and in very rare cases, people themselves are killed. But it must be put into perspective and [we must take into account] why the ESA was established in the first place.'

As the controversy continues, one thing is certain, wolves are in danger. Kronemann said he is concerned by the local population’s desire to rid the area of wolves without completely understanding the situation facing the endangered species.

'It is a quick and easy solution for many because they don’t understand the history of wolves in the state and across the country,' he said. 'For the past decade and a half, biologists have struggled to move wolves back to their rightful home. There will be issues that come with this, but citizens need to understand that wolves are not out to get them. They want to survive along with the rest of nature. And they should.'

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