Gray Wolf conservation in the Northern Rockies: Can we protect wolves and ranchers?

By David Jennings, 1L Student, Vermont Law School

After hundreds of years of persecution in the United States, in 1978 the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed gray wolves (Canis lupus) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which gave them federal protection from hunting, killing, and otherwise harassing. Following this protection, in 1995 and 1996, 31 wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and another 23 were released in Idaho. In 2003, satisfied that the populations had sufficiently recovered, USFWS initiated procedures to delist wolves from the ESA. Extensive litigation back and forth followed, but ultimately wolf hunting in Wyoming resumed in October 2017.

Under the ESA, a species is considered endangered if it is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” In addition to listing an entire species, USFWS can classify a particular population of a species as a distinct population segment (DPS). A DPS can be used to prioritize conservation for a declining population in a specific area, but can also be used to remove protections for populations that may have recovered. USFWS applied this method to justify delisting wolves in the “Northern Rocky Mountain” DPS. The decision to delist the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves presents an important question: was USFWS motivated by sound management strategy or simply anti-wildlife politics?

Wolf reintroduction in Wyoming inevitably led to conflict with owners of livestock. For example, from 1987 to 2002, 861 domestic animals (predominantly cattle and sheep) were killed by wolves in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. These losses cost around $11,000 in damages each year. USFWS’s main justification for delisting the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves and permitting hunting was to sustainably control populations. Their argument was that sustainable population control would presumably reduce livestock losses, and also reduce wolf poaching. Contrary to this theory however, there is evidence that more wolves are illegally killed without permits when hunting is legalized, possibly because legalizing it suggests wolves’ importance as a species has diminished. In fact, one of Yellowstone’s most famous wolves was killed earlier in 2017.

Many people have a negative attitude towards wolves, mistakenly believing that they provide few economic or ecological benefits. The truth is that wolves provide many economic and ecological benefits. In a recent survey, 83% of Yellowstone’s 4.25 million visitors stated viewing wildlife was an important reason why they visited the park—second only to viewing natural scenery. Some estimates have even suggested that wolf watching brings $35 million to the local economy each year.

The ecological benefits of wolves and other large predators in general are also well documented. In Yellowstone specifically, wolf reintroduction initiated a trophic cascade by changing the behavior of herbivores such as elk. With fewer elk foraging in riparian areas, more aspen trees could grow, and the landscape was restored to a more natural condition. This allowed even more species in the Yellowstone ecosystem to thrive. Unfortunately, however, recent data indicate that 243 livestock animals were killed by wolves in Wyoming alone in 2016. The livestock losses are clearly problematic for many ranchers. Is there a way we can balance the importance of wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountain ecosystem without ignoring their impact on ranchers’ livelihoods?

Maybe as a society we should be willing to pay more for beef and lamb, to help subsidize effective non-lethal predator deterrents or compensate ranchers. Maybe we should just be eating less beef and lamb in the first place. Either way, there are better alternatives for wolf management than delisting and culling them as soon as they become inconvenient in a given DPS. Going forward, hopefully Wyoming and other states will employ some of these alternatives and embrace the benefits wolves provide instead of continuing to pursue such a politically-motivated and trigger-happy approach.