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Stripping ESA Protections From Northern Rockies Wolf Packs Could Harm Yellowstone National Park Wolves


Barring a last-minute change, hunting season could be declared on many wolves in the Northern Rockies under an amendment attached to the Continuing Resolution designed to keep the government in business through September. In 2009, the last time Montana allowed a wolf hunt, Wolf 527, led her pack outside of Yellowstone and was killed by a hunter. NPS photo.

Yellowstone National Park wolves, which have brought balance to the park's ecosystem and tens of millions of dollars to its surrounding communities, could find themselves targeted by hunters if an amendment attached to the latest Continuing Resolution remains intact.

Such an outcome played out in October 2009 when the Cottonwood Creek Pack, which had a home base just inside the park's northern border, roamed north and onto Montana's Buffalo Plateau. While the pack's alpha female, a big black animal known as "527," might simply have been leading her 10-member pack in search of an easy meal from the gut piles elk hunters leave behind, that excursion coincided with Montana's first official wolf season in decades.

"The Cottonwoods were destroyed," Louisa Willcox, a senior wildlife advocate in the Natural Resource Defense Council's Montana office, recalled Tuesday. "There may have been a straggler or two and they went off in the wilderness and they were never heard from again, but for all intents and purposes that pack was wrecked by the hunt that occurred in Montana in the opening days of the hunting season.”

Yellowstone officials say at least four of the 10 wolves were killed that October, essentially disintegrating the pack.

So while the rider that U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, succeeded in attaching to the Continuing Resolution expected to come up for congressional approval Thursday doesn't allow hunting of wolves inside Yellowstone or Glacier national parks, it also doesn't protect any wolves that might roam outside the parks.

Though the National Rifle Association applauded the rider, it was picked apart by some others in Congress, as well by conservation groups that questioned the wisdom of using politics, not biology, to remove ESA protections from a species. Under the rider wolves in Montana, Idaho, and portions of Utah, Oregon and Washington state could be targeted during state-approved hunting seasons.

"Right now, Montana's wolf population is out of balance and this provision will get us back on the responsible path with state management," Sen. Tester said in explaining his amendment. "Wolves have recovered in the Northern Rockies. By untying the hands of Montana biologists who know how to keep the proper balance, we will restore healthy wildlife populations and we will protect livestock. This provision is best for our wildlife, our livestock, and for wolves themselves."

That argument, though, was not accepted by everyone.

“The American people want the Republicans to cut government pork, not pass indefensible riders that support the killing of endangered wolves,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.

At Earthjustice, a group that handles legal work for conservation groups in the West, President Trip Van Noppen shook his head at the efforts to inject politics into the ESA.

“President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stood tall on protecting our Appalachian mountains from further damage by mountaintop removal coal mining operations and Americans from mercury-pumping cement kiln pollution, as well as soot and carbon dioxide emissions, yet House Speaker John Boehner and his Tea Party flank were relentless in pushing their anti-environment agenda and together with some Senate Democrats were able to keep an amendment in the budget bill that strips protections for America’s wildlife," he said.

“Wolves deserve protections just like every other species and it’s a tragedy that they’ve been thrown under the bus for political reasons. By law, lifting federal endangered species protections is supposed to be based solely on biology, not politicians enacting their political judgment. Let the wildlife experts do their jobs. Keep politics out of wildlife management."

But NRA officials said allowing the hunting of the predators was indeed wildlife management.

"With recovered populations of wolves across the Northwest, this provision sends an important message to anti-hunting extremists -- politics and legal wrangling are not welcome when it comes to conservation,” said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the rifle association's Institute for Legislative Action.  “Hunters are the true conservationists and wolves simply need to be managed through regulated hunting like so many other species.  The partial delisting is a good start and we will be focused on a more comprehensive solution moving forward.”

According to the NRA, moose, elk, and mule deer populations have been decimated in some areas where wolves are prevalent and the regulated hunting of wolves is long-overdue.  The congressional "fix" included in the Continuing Resolution would reinstate the 2009 science-based delisting ruling by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the organization said.

But back at Earthjustice, Mr. Van Noppen maintained that "(A)lthough the immediate legislative threat is to wolves, the bigger threat is to all protected species, polar bears, grizzly bears, whales, and salmon among many. These animals are now vulnerable by the precedent of Congress substituting their political views for those of wildlife experts. This puts us on a path toward dismantling the Endangered Species Act by many individual attacks."

“Not only do we stand to lose protections for our gray wolves, but this budget bill now contains congressional language aimed at tying the hands of federal land managers overseeing some of America’s last great wild natural lands," he added. “The wolf provision has nothing to do with cutting our spending. This is not the budget bill Americans are looking for.”

“With Democrats like Tester, who needs Republicans?” added Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Jon Tester’s job creation agenda is concerned with only one job — his own. With the help of the White House and Senate leader Harry Reid, he has sacrificed wolves and the Endangered Species Act to cynical, self-interested politics.”

In the 38-year history of the Endangered Species Act, Congress has never intervened to override the law and remove a plant or animal from federal protection, according to the center.

“Tester’s rider is not only a disaster for wolf recovery, it opens the door for every self-interested politician to try to strip protection away from local endangered species,” Mr. Suckling continued. “It encourages weak-link Democrats to hold the entire party hostage to their local agendas.”

Back at her Livingston, Mont., office, Ms. Willcox said that if the rider remains intact Montana and Idaho officials should provide Yellowstone wolves a measure or two of protection by creating buffers around the park in which hunting would be banned.

"There should be concern about how (hunts) would affect the park populations because of how the states, especially Montana, and Idaho, too, configure the hunts around the park boundaries," she said. “And hopefully, they won’t duplicate the mistakes made when the hunts happened (in 2009) when park wolves, who had long pointy (spotting) scopes pointing at them for a very long time, suddenly had long pointy rifles pointing at them and were not ready for running away from people, because they were very habituated to people."

In Canada, Ms. Willcox noted, wildlife biologists in Ontario convinced provincial officials to draw such buffers around Algonquin Provincial Park to protect its wolves from hunters.

"What would make sense here is to do what Algonquin Park did in Canada, where there was a small park and wolves were getting continuously blown up if they got outside the park in Ontario and were shot," she said. "Some of the wolf experts in eastern Canada were able to argue to the provincial government that they should have a buffer zone around the park to basically protect the integrity of park packs, seeing that that is a very valuable thing, to have integral park packs that are not getting blown up repeatedly and destabilized.

“It would be wonderful to see if states were willing to work with the Park Service to develop a buffer zone that encompasses the territories, estimated territories, of how far wolves are roaming outside the park. That’s what should happen."

Another benefit for Yellowstone's wolves would be if Idaho and Montana officials also created buffers around the east-west running finger of landscape between the Centennial and Gravelly ranges that connects the park with central Idaho's wolf packs. Maintaining protection along that corridor would help the Yellowstone packs from running into genetic bottlenecks, Ms. Willcox said.

"There have been very, very few wolves that have made the trip from Idaho into Yellowstone and gotten stabilized within a pack structure and produced offspring," she said. "But in the long run, the genetics of Yellowstone wolves depend on having migration back and forth with Idaho. It would make sense to have buffer zones around the park and a no-hunt zone in the major connectivity areas that we know are important to wolves.”

Protecting Yellowstone's wolves from being impacted by hunting seasons in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming also would be good economics for towns surrounding the park. A study done in 2006 projected that tourists who come to the park to watch wolves spend $35 million a year on those trips.

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What do you mean IF this amendment remains intact?  Is there a chance it could somehow be killed?

There are a lot of things I'd really like to say here.  But my Mommy taught me that if you can't say anything nice there should be fifteen minutes of total silence.  I guess that's in keeping with the spirit of this website.

However, this kind of sneaky backroom dealing is exactly what we in northern Utah have come to expect from our dearly beloved and benevolent Congressional sleazebag (not an insulting pejorative, just a fact) Rob Bishop.  We Mormons aren't supposed to drink Tea, but our law makers sure seem to love it.

Excuse me while I go off and mutter profanities for awhile.  (Well, I really never swear, but this is enough to tempt even the Pope.)

However, one tiny hopeful note:  Even here in Utah -- the reddest of the red states -- there is growing discontent among voters over some of the sleazy shenanigans pulled by our local Republican legislators.  An attempt to completely gut the Utah GRAMA laws and one that virtually stripped any ability of voters to petition for legislative initiatives has really riled folks. 

If sensible moderates can keep this growing disgust alive until the next election, maybe there'll be a chance of making some changes.  Hopefully, it will be moderate voters and not Tea Party types who will clean house next time.

Lee, one could always hope others in Congress, once they see the potential impact of Sen. Tester's rider on Yellowstone's wolves and other species, would strip the rider before approving the CR. But that's probably a thin hope.

For other readers, GRAMA is basically Utah's open records law.

The NRA called someone else an extremist?  Interesting, but that's a whole nother (off topic) debate where my own feelings aren't really very clear.  I also didn't realize the NRA involved themselves in conservation issues, although i'm not surprised.

This is from the attached article for the NPT

Quoting Douglas:

Smith, who has been studying wolves for more than 30 years and who currently leads the wolf project in Yellowstone National Park.

"What’s your opinion on listing the wolf as an endangered species?

I have this idea that being able to hunt wolves increases tolerance of them and lowers resentment. At the end of the day for me, that’s better than keeping wolves on the list when animosity towards them is high.

I think it’s fair to say we want to vigorously protect wolves in some places. But I’m very much in favor—for a lack of a better way to talk about it— of zonal management. We can designate areas where we are not going to harvest wolves. And in other areas where wolves are clearly hard to live with because people are trying to make a living, you have some harvesting. This idea of social tolerance increasing by a regulated hunting season is where I think we need to go. It’s a very modern position, but I think we really need to be modern."

What happened in 6 days that the person heading the wolf project up is in favor of the hunting and this article treats it as a crime waiting to happen?

Could this congressman be using the information from the person heading up the parks wolf program. Refer the wolf article written on 4/7/2011 about yellowstone wolves. He is in favor of hunting.

Samsdad1, I think it's safe to say that there are several concerns at play in this situation. One is that Congress has opened the door to letting politics, not science, decide which species should get ESA protection and which shouldn't.

Another is that if the states are going to have managed hunts, there should be buffer zones around national parks and corridors that prevent populations from being isolated and genetically imperiled.

As Doug Smith clearly pointed out in the interview, he favors zonal management of wolves beyond park borders, which is the same point raised by Louisa Willcox of NRDC in today's article. No change there at all.

I think you have to keep separate how any state-managed hunts are conducted with the concerns over allowing politics to guide ESA listings. They don't go hand-in-hand. Are they controversial? Absolutely. And as you know, Yellowstone isn't the only place where that controversy rages.

Agreed on the word Controversial!

I will say from personal experience the word BUFFER with no reference to distance scares the he77 out of me.

He also mentions "This idea of social tolerance increasing by a regulated hunting season is where I think we need to go. It’s a very modern position, but I think we really need to be modern."

Modern is a word needed more in the NPS system, just kidding. I really like Social tolerance. This in my eyes is similar to compromise, don't you think?

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