By Mark Lung
During the 10 years I spent studying wolves and elk behavior in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, I learned a bit about humans as well. Since wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s, people from all over the world have come to witness one of the most iconic and magnificent symbols of our natural heritage. The chance to hear the howl of a wolf or see a pack lounging in a distant valley in the afternoon sun is a thrill for thousands of visitors who live in developed areas but are drawn to the wildness of nature in action.
Before reintroduction, the wolf population in the western United States and its other historic ranges had declined to the point of near extinction. Even now, the loss of habitat, extermination programs, disease and the perils of living in the wild continue to take their toll.
But the biggest threat to the wolf’s fragile recovery is a proposal to remove Endangered Species Act protections in the western Great Lakes and elsewhere in the U.S.
Recently introduced in Congress, the proposed legislation would strip wolves of their federal protections in states including Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Let me tell you how that has worked in Idaho, where I live.
Since federal protections of wolves were removed in 2011, the Idaho Fish and Game Department has taken aggressive measures to reduce the wolf population, including aerial gunning and trapping. The department spends thousands of public dollars for every wolf it manages to kill — about $4,600 per dead wolf, according to one estimate.
The state’s argument for this wolf-reduction program is based on declining populations of elk in the region, yet there is no scientific evidence that this expensive effort is making a difference in Idaho’s goal to increase big-game numbers.
The research I conducted, along with stacks of other scientific studies, show that habitat loss, food shortages and hunters have a much larger effect on reducing elk populations than do wolves. Wolves do change elk behavior and movement, resulting in two relevant consequences: There may actually be more elk than the state estimates, especially if traditional counting methods are used, and, even more importantly, entire ecosystems are positively influenced. For example, the presence of wolves in Yellowstone National Park is tied to increases in aspen trees and willows and subsequent increases in bird diversity.
Hunting is a valued tradition in this country. It can be a tool for managing wildlife and striking a balance between the survival of rare species like wolves and the deer and elk valued by wolves and people alike. During the last public hearings on the Idaho Fish and Game wolf management plans, many hunters voiced their opposition to the plan to reduce wolf numbers. It would be a far better idea to spend state money on habitat and conservation programs that improve the odds for all: hunters, wolves and their prey.
In my opinion, the management of wolves in Idaho, because it was based on false assumptions, poor science and the emotional choices of a few people, is unlikely to be successful. The lethal management of wolves ignores more important issues that influence elk populations and disregards the potential local business opportunities in the rising economy of ecotourism. There are ample business prospects that could work well in the U.S., similar to what my company does in Kenya, creating jobs directly related to conservation and tourism while helping local economies.
The proposed legislation to undo wolf protections is a blow not only to the slowly recovering population; it attacks the foundation of the Endangered Species Act, our nation’s safety net for imperiled species. The Endangered Species Act is one of our most effective and important environmental laws. Supported by nearly 85 percent of Americans, it brought back the bald eagle in the 1970s. Dismantling it piece by piece is a death sentence for other important species.
We have just begun to see wolf recovery in some places; and while those efforts have had moderate success, it is too soon to take wolves off the endangered species list. There are many states in which wolves once roamed their range, keeping the ecosystem in balance. Continued federal protections are essential to allow existing wolf populations to stabilize and expand to their historic habitats. Preserving wolf protections under federal law is one action we can take now to ensure that just as people travel to see wolves in their natural setting today, future generations will have the opportunity to observe one of our last wild legacies.