By Zack Strong
Last week, more than a million Americans registered their opposition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) proposed plan to remove Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves in most of the lower-48 states. This was the largest number of comments ever submitted on a federal action involving endangered species.
One of the reasons so many of us oppose the plan is because removing federal protections from wolves means handing their management over to state governments and wildlife agencies. Unfortunately, many states have demonstrated hostility toward wolf conservation, such as with overly aggressive hunting and trapping seasons, the designation of “predator zones” where wolves may be killed year-round without a permit, and large appropriations of taxpayer dollars doled out to anti-wolf lobbyists. If states are allowed to take the reins now, before wolves have had a chance to recover in places like the Pacific West, southern Rockies, and northern New England, wolves may never get the chance.
Continuing the disturbing pattern of state aggression toward wolves, Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks (“FWP”) Commission recently proposed several amendments to the state’s wolf management rules that would greatly expand the circumstances under which landowners could legally kill wolves on their property. NRDC testified against, and submitted a letter opposing, many of the proposed changes, because they are unnecessary, impossibly vague, and would result in the trapping and killing of many non-threatening, non-offending wolves and other animals.
For example, one of the proposed amendments would allow landowners to kill any wolf, anytime, anywhere on their property, without a permit, whenever the wolf constitutes a “potential threat” to humans or domestic animals. Yet the amendment does not define “potential threat” or provide any clear examples of when a wolf is or is not acting “potentially threatening.” This is a big problem because some landowners (as one sitting next to me loudly announced during a recent public hearing) consider all wolves on their property “potential threats”—despite, for example, the fact that wolves commonly travel near and among livestock while completely ignoring them.
And even if “potential threat” was clearly defined, such a rule would be unnecessary. Montana law already allows a person to kill a wolf if it is “attacking, killing, or threatening to kill” a person, dog, or livestock, or to receive a 45-day kill permit for a wolf that has already done so. Further, the state pays ranchers the full market value of livestock losses when government investigators confirm, or even think it was probable, that the animal was killed by a wolf. These measures already safeguard ranchers and their property; allowing “potentially threatening” wolves to also be killed seems more a guise for further reducing the state’s wolf population than providing needed assistance to landowners.
Another amendment would allow landowners with a kill permit to use foothold traps to kill wolves that have attacked livestock. Such an amendment is unnecessary, because kill permits already allow landowners to shoot these wolves. Further, foothold traps are non-selective, and would be more likely to capture a non-threatening, non-offending animal than a specific wolf. In fact, foothold traps are so indiscriminate, and cause such prolonged pain and suffering, that they have been banned in more than 80 countries, and banned or severely restricted in several U.S. states.
Allowing the use of foothold traps could also result in the capture and killing of threatened and endangered species such as wolverines, lynx and grizzly bears, as well as black bears, deer, elk, moose, mountain lions, eagles, and, yes, landowners’ own dogs and livestock—the very animals these traps would supposedly be protecting. The odds of incidental captures would be particularly high, given that landowners would be allowed to leave these traps out a full month and a half after the livestock attack had occurred.
A third amendment would remove the requirement that FWP set quotas during the wolf hunting and trapping seasons. Quotas, when used properly, help ensure against hunters and trappers killing unsustainable numbers of wolves, entire packs, wolves that primarily inhabit protected areas, and wolves that pose little or no threat to domestic animals (such as wolves that reside in wilderness areas or in places where little or no grazing occurs). Given that this year FWP extended the season by two months, increased the number of wolves one could kill from one to five, and authorized the use of electronic calls (some of which mimic the cries of pups), it should be proposing to institute more quotas, not fewer.
Like FWS’ proposed “delisting,” the FWP Commission’s proposed amendments are simply not rooted in science or conservation. Instead, ironically, two agencies tasked with recovering and sustaining healthy wolf populations have manufactured the species’ newest threats. Both proposals should be dropped, and conversations begun anew about new ways to conserve and manage, not kill, these animals. Let’s discuss how to treat them as they deserve to be treated—not as saints, not as demons, but, very simply, as the wild, intelligent, ecologically critical creatures that they are.