The Great American War on Wolves

Keegan Sentner takes us into the heart of a centuries-long conflict designed to eradicate wolves from the American West.

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In October 2021, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife drew widespread criticism for killing two wolf pups and one adolescent wolf from the Lookout Mountain pack in northeastern Oregon. The ‘lethal removal’, which was performed by state wildlife officials, was approved in response to concerns from the local ranching community, where the agency claims the wolf pack had been involved in multiple livestock kills. 

In a press release responding to the killings, The Center for Biological Diversity stated that “the agency’s rush to kill wolves only makes things worse for the pack and the livestock operators.” In recent years, episodes similar to this one have become commonplace throughout the western United States, with unlimited quotas outside Yellowstone National Park, new regulations that allow for alarming hunting methods, and a political movement determined to eradicate this iconic creature from the American west.

Two sides of a debate

The livestock industry has been successful in lobbying for a reduction in wolf populations in several states across the U.S., where animal agriculture comprises a large part of the economy.

By leveraging rare instances of wolf predation of livestock, the industry has convinced state politicians to decrease protections of the iconic predator, citing a need to protect ranching communities and local wildlife. These decreased protections of wolves usually come through state hunting regulations. 

Hunting, which is a key component of the U.S. model of conservation, can be a useful tool for limiting predator populations—but lethal methods are a slippery slope. Biased views towards predatory control are incredibly prevalent in America’s tumultuous history with wildlife and recent research suggests the lethal removal of wolves actually increases depredation of livestock, making the issue worse. 

Wolves, which were removed from the federal endangered species list in 2020, are still recovering from centuries of historical unsustainable hunting practices. “We would assert today that wolves occupy less than 15 percent of their historical habitat,” says John Murtaugh, Representative of the Rockies and Plains Program for Defenders of Wildlife which, along with several other conservation organizations, is advocating for an emergency relisting of wolves. 

A history of conflict

The war on wolves in the United States has been long and ruthless. At the arrival of European immigrants in the early 1500s, wolves were believed to be found on the continent in numbers close to 2 million. By 1950, the species was absent from nearly every state in the country, with only a few populations remaining in the northernmost reaches of the nation. 

Throughout American westward expansion, wolves have been designated a symbol of resistance. They have been considered vermin, a roadblock to agricultural expansion, a beast of the frontier, to be heroically overcome by outdoorsmen in their campaign for domination over the land.  

Due to centuries of persecution and harvest, including decades of federally instituted bounties on the species, wolves were driven to near extinction by the early 1920s. When the United States passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, it had been nearly fifty years since their numbers were widespread in the west. With the passage of the ESA, wolves gained full protection status and federal recognition as a species in need of recovery. 

The real turning point for wolves came in 1995 when they were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, nearly 70 years after they had been eradicated from the region. Within a decade, the park would reinvigorate. The return of the natural predator lowered elk populations, diminishing pressure on the local flora, and restoring diversity in the ecosystem

A renewed fight in the West

In a recent report, Yellowstone park officials announced that 20 of the famous park wolves have been hunted outside the park boundaries this season, the most killed in a single season since their reintroduction to the park nearly 25 years ago. These high numbers of harvest highlight a harrowing trend, a renewed campaign of eradication, perpetuated by political motivations and unjust wildlife management practices. 

Since the delisting of the species in 2020, several western states have passed controversial hunting regulations that facilitate increased killings of wolves 

Idaho now allows hunting wolves from vehicles, while Montana has effectively placed bounties on the species and last year a state-sanctioned hunt in Wisconsin killed 216 wolves in a matter of 60 hours, far exceeding the state limit of 119. 

This season, the Montana Wildlife Commission passed alarming regulations that allow for the baiting of wolves, night hunting on private land, and the elimination of hunting quotas on units bordering Yellowstone, an area where 15 of the 20 park wolves were hunted this season. 

Many wildlife managers and biologists are concerned about what these new regulations mean for the future of species. “We have seen changes occurring that don’t seem to be based in the best available science, they seem to be based in politics,” says Murtaugh.

Indeed, some politicians are clearly revealing their prejudice against wolves, including Montana Governor Greg Gianforte, who has a notorious past regarding hunting them. Gov. Gianfortewas issued a warning last season following an incident in which he trapped and killed a collared Yellowstone wolf outside the park without taking the required trappers training course beforehand, a considerably basic measure for anyone involved in the practice of hunting.  

In response to a letter addressing this season’s killings by Yellowstone Park Superintendent Cam Sholly, Gov. Gianforte stated, “Once a wolf exits the park and enters lands in the State of Montana it may be harvested pursuant to regulations established by the Commission under Montana law.” The response effectively ignored Sholly’s request to halt wolf hunting in the units bordering the national park in the early season. Park officials told AP the killings were “a significant setback” to the viability and future of wolves in the region.

In late January, the Montana Wildlife Commission conceded to widespread criticism from former employees and announced it would end wolf hunting in the units outside the park, limiting the number of wolves that could be killed. The response reverses the previous Montana regulations which allowed for the killing of unlimited wolves in the region outside of Yellowstone. 

These developments may have limited the attack on wolves for the remainder of the season, but one thing is certain, the campaign against wolves has once again taken center stage in the American west. The iconic adversary of the frontier is under threat, being hunted and killed without remorse—the latest battle in the great American war on wolves.

On February 10th, a federal judge restored endangered species protections to Gray Wolves outside of the northern Rocky Mountains, reversing the USFWS Trump-era delisting of the species. The relisting would not apply to the wolves in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, which are federally listed as a distinct subpopulation of the species. Still, this ruling in favor of relisting the species is a massive step forward for the future of wolf conservation in the United States.

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