March 04, 2022
Jim Heihorn saw it coming. When I talked with him back in 2009, the fifth-generation Idaho rancher was all too happy to buy his first wolf-hunting license. It had been, by his admittedly rough estimation, 80 years since wolves were last hunted in his part of the state. He was sanguine about the opportunity but questioned whether hunting would be an effective management tool.
"If I see a wolf, I’ll shoot it, no doubt about it," he said. "But I don’t know if that’s enough. That’s the thing about wolves. I don’t know that we can control them with individuals with tags. The last time they were in this valley, there were a lot more sheep. But there were also full-time wolfers who used everything at their disposal—poison, snares, airplanes—to hunt wolves."
Thirteen years later, that pressure campaign on wolves has reached a rock-and-a-hard-place moment, with Western states approving aggressive means to control wolves, and environmentalists staging equally aggressive campaigns to stop all wolf hunting.
In terms of intensity and consequence, this is the conservation story of the year. And, like most of the intense value expressions of the last few years, this one has overtones of extremely partisan politics.
That year I talked with Heihorn, wolves had just been removed from the federal endangered species list. Management had passed from the Department of Interior’s U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to the states of Idaho and Montana. Wyoming’s management of wolves had to wait a few more years, until the state reclassified them as trophy game animals instead of shoot-on-sight predators.
The return to state management was celebrated as evidence that conservation works. In the 14 years between the release of wolves in Yellowstone National Park and the start of hunting seasons, populations in their core habitat around Yellowstone had increased more than 1,000 percent. Moreover, all the benchmarks that the USFWS had established as evidence of wolf recovery had been met.
That included a minimum of 15 breeding pairs in at least 15 packs each in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Since then, wolves have expanded their range to Washington, Oregon, California, parts of Utah and now Colorado, where voters passed a ballot measure calling for the state agency to actively repatriate wolves in the Golden State.
Another population of wolves in the Great Lakes states are similarly way above recovery benchmarks, and hunting seasons have been established in Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. Wisconsin hunters killed 218 wolves in just a few days during the February 2021 season, far exceeding harvest quotas established by the state’s Department of Natural Resources. In comparison, the harvest in Montana was about 300 wolves last year out of an estimated minimum population of nearly 1,200. Michigan has not had a wolf season since 2013 and Minnesota’s last wolf hunt was in 2014.
The friction in this latest wolf war is less about the total kill than about how states are allowing it. In Idaho, the state legislature authorized the Fish and Game Department to allow the use of snowmobiles, ATVs and even "motorized parachutes" statewide and year-round to kill wolves in a stated effort to reduce the state’s wolf population by more than 90 percent.
In Montana, the state’s legislature authorized Fish, Wildlife & Parks to establish aggressive population-control measures, using snares, night hunting and a compensation arrangement pioneered in Idaho. Under that provision, hunters can receive payments from private organizations to offset expenses accrued in successful wolf hunts and trapping forays.
To many wolf advocates, that last action sounds a lot like the bounties of a century ago, mechanisms that were used to incentivize wolf harvests that led to the canine’s extirpation from the American West. Compensation, baiting, snaring, night hunting—these all seem to wolf advocates like extremely punitive measures to hunt an animal that is classified as a trophy big-game species in many states.
There’s little doubt that wolf restoration efforts have succeeded. We have more wolves in more places than we’ve had in 100 years. But one of the key pieces of language that allowed management of wolves to transition from the USFWS to states was the assurance that states had in place "adequate regulatory mechanisms" to ensure that the species wouldn’t return to federal protection. That term has the force of law; it is one of the criteria that can be used to renew federal protection of wolves.
The term is being revived as states adopt aggressive management measures. It’s one that Dan Ashe, the former director of the USFWS under President Obama, used to argue that states can’t be trusted to manage wolves. In an opinion piece published by the Washington Post, Ashe stressed that his former agency should immediately stop wolf hunting on federal land and enact a year-long biological review of wolf populations, distribution and harvest trends. In the influential piece, he claimed that states lack adequate regulatory mechanisms to manage wolves.
Indeed, a month after Ashe’s piece appeared, and on the very day that Idaho and Montana opened their liberal wolf-hunting seasons, the USFWS announced it would undertake that year-long review. The agency said the risk of "potential increases in human-caused mortality" was the basis for the review, and that "recent regulatory changes in Idaho and Montana may pose a threat to wolves in these states by expanding the means and methods of harvest such that the species may become threatened or endangered."
Tony Schoonen doesn’t think that wolves are anywhere close to returning to either threatened or endangered status. The CEO of the Boone and Crockett Club, Schoonen has been a longtime advocate for scientific management of wildlife, including predators like mountain lions and wolves.
"The real question: Can we be patient, trusting and calm enough with each other to figure this out?" noted Schoonen. "We need to get back to the professionals using science to avoid over- or under-management."
However, Schoonen also conceded that hyper-aggressive measures to control wolves, which have shown limited harm on either livestock or big-game species in most of the West, do introduce stress and politics into what should be value-blind wildlife management. It’s worth noting that one of President Trump’s last actions was delisting the Great Lakes population of wolves, and the state legislatures in both Idaho and Montana are heavily Republican. Many wolf advocates are Democrats, or at least liberal-leaning, and the Interior Department advocating for the year-long biological review is a branch of the Biden administration.
It’s too easy to dismiss the aggressive hunting and trapping of wolves as Republican actions, and the continued protection of wolves as a Democrat effort. But the same extreme partisan divide that has held sway over everything from voting rights and abortion restrictions to gun regulations certainly casts a shadow over this issue, which Schoonen says should be free from politics.
"Scientific wildlife management requires regular adjustments to meet biological and social carrying capacities," says Schoonen. In other words, management shouldn’t be imposed by legislatures or citizen ballot initiatives, but rather from trained wildlife scientists.
Any decisions regarding wolf regulations will likely reverberate among big-game hunters well beyond Western and Great Lakes states. They could also have an impact on the future management of another alpha predator: the grizzly bear.
In the core range of grizzlies, Yellowstone Park and the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem that extends into Glacier National Park, most recovery benchmarks have been achieved. Yet grizzlies are still classified as endangered species and managed by the USFWS, despite repeated evidence that hunting would probably reduce the number of grizzly-human incidents, reduce the incidental mortality of grizzlies by wildlife officials and balance bear populations with their carrying capacity.
If the feds are reluctant to allow states to continue to manage wolves, how likely are they to give grizzly management authority to state agencies and legislatures whose regulatory mechanisms have been called into question? The role of hunters in the conservation of these two species hangs in the balance.