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Common Sense Should Dictate Wolf Policy, But No …

The federal government has been trying to turn over management of gray wolves to the individual states where the restored carnivores reside. One of the stumbling blocks to getting them under state control is that Wyoming’s management plan placed wolves in two categories, depending on where the wolf was at a given time. Inside Yellowstone National Park, they would be managed as trophy game animals, with hunting seasons and regulations like any other hunted animals. Everywhere else they would be listed as predators, and could be killed for any reason by anybody who could get close enough with a rifle.

Utah and Montana, the other two states with wolves, classify wolves as trophy game animals. Wyoming’s insistence on the two classifications was a major reason that a federal district judge recently overturned U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting plan. The judge rightly noted that classifying 90 percent of Wyoming wolves as predators might isolate them from other wolves, a genetic guarantee that wolf populations would plummet below the numbers necessary to keep the species thriving, which would trigger another listing, etc. ad nauseum.
The solution seems so simple, yet opinion is split in Wyoming over what to do. Rep. Keith Gingery of Jackson has actually proposed the sensible solution: Make the wolf a trophy species state-wide. But there are others, says the Casper Star-Tribune , who would prefer suing the government to force it to accept the state’s plan.

Evidence that Gingery’s proposal is the right choice and his opponents are still living in a 19th-century mindset can be found in federal government records, which I found through Ralph Maugham’s indispensable Western news aggregator.

The Wyoming Wolf News Report for Oct. 13-17, includes this item: “On 10/18/08, Wyoming Wildlife Services investigated a dead calf in the Big Horn Mountains near Ten Sleep, WY. The calf died from causes unrelated to wolves; however, a wolf was seen scavenging the calf carcass. One set of wolf tracks was found near the carcass. A local resident recently took a photograph of a single black wolf walking through his cattle in the same area. Trapping efforts to radio collar this wolf will proceed after big game hunting season ends.”

This seems a reasonable response, from the perspective of the rancher and the wolf alike. But under the management plan that the state of Wyoming had in place after delisting, the outcome likely would have been different; that wolf could have been killed by the resident who took the photo or anybody else, for that matter. And since the wolf was scavenging the carcass, the killing of the calf could be blamed or at least associated with the wolf, in this case guilty of nothing more than following its nose to a possible meal site.

Here’s another item: “On 10/18/08, Wyoming Wildlife Services confirmed a calf injured by wolves in the Upper Green River drainage. On 10/20/08, WGFD confirmed a second calf injured by wolves in the same area. The calf was later euthanized due to the severity of the injuries. Control actions are ongoing to remove the 2 wolves that were involved in several depredations in the Upper Green River drainage this summer.”

Again, this would seem to be a sensible way to proceed. But under Wyoming’s management plan, the entire pack could have been hunted and exterminated and branded cattle killers.
Or this: “On 10/11/08, a local coyote trapper caught a yearling female wolf in the Upper Green River drainage, and reported the incident to the WGFD warden in the area. Wildlife Services was able to place a radio collar on the wolf and release it unharmed. The USFWS appreciates the help and coordination between the trapper, WGFD, and Wildlife Services.”

Again, the outcome would almost certainly have been different under the state’s management plan. The trapper could have legally killed the wolf as it struggled in the trap.
The Billings Gazette reports  that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to have another plan in place by next year.

If defies common sense that Wyoming wouldn’t draft a proper management plan that balances protection and management. Then again, don’t hold your breath, either.

October 22, 2008   No Comments

Will the Wolf Survive?

Good news today in the West.

Tuesday U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy signed an order in Missoula, Montana, that reinstates the gray wolf’s status on the Endangered Species list.  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Four early victims of Wyoming's Wolf Management Plan.

Four early victims of Wyoming's Wolf Management Plan.

had delisted the wolf in February of this year.

What led to this unfortunate situation is best described elsewhere, but basically the Feds are trying to move control of restored wolves back to the states. Over the last few years, they have tried to get the three states involved, Utah, Montana and Wyoming, to come up with individual plans to deal with future wolf populations. These efforts that have mostly fruitless because, especially in Wyoming, the management/hunting plan would guarantee that wolf numbers would plummet back to the minimum required levels as quickly as possible.

The governor of Utah publicly proclaimed he would be at the front of the line to kill the first wolf of the new hunting season. Wyoming made it legal to kill a wolf anywhere, anytime, for any reason, in 90 percent of the state – everywhere except in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Two hundred and twenty five of the estimated 1200-1500 U.S. wolves have died already this year.

This is protection? Several environmental groups, whose only recourse in a situation like this, is in the courts, sued the federal government because state’s management plans obviously wouldn’t sustain wolf populations. Judge Molloy saw the Wyoming plan for what it was and ruled accordingly.

I can understand the government’s desire to get wolves under state jurisdiction and be able to call wolf reintroduction an Endangered Species Act victory. But until it can force the states to create sensible management plans that guarantee the wolf’s present and future place in their ecosystems, the wolves will need to remain under federal protection.

October 15, 2008   1 Comment

A Druid at Heart

This is the first year since 2001 that Billie and I haven’t made it to Yellowstone. As anyone who reads this or knows us is well aware, we are more than slightly smitten with the wolves reintroduced in 1995 that now roam the park’s ecosystem and beyond for the first time since the United States government almost killed them off. The last Yellowstone wolf was shot in 1926.

Under pressure, that same government did a remarkable thing, reversed its course over the objections of the cattle industry and reintroduced gray wolves to Yellowstone. We have seen amazing things up there, and this Sunday you can, too. Bob Landis has spent much of the last decade filming Yellowstone wolves. Earlier films have shown, for the first time on camera, wolf packs hunting elk and deadly inter-pack rivalries.

He spent 300 days a year for three years filming “In the Valley of the Wolves,”, which is being shown as part of the Nature series on PBS, Sunday, 6-7 p.m. MST.

November 1, 2007   No Comments

Wolves Everywhere in Little America

Tuesday October 10, 2006
Pine Edge Cabins
Silver Gate, Montana

We were in the park before 6:30. Everything in the Lamar Valley is wrapped in a foggy shroud, the conifers white with yesterday’s snow, wraithlike, ghostly. Very cold and very beautiful.

We are rewarded once again for our diligence, as we get to see a total of eighteen wolves in two packs operating in the Little America area.

We stop at an overlook near the west end of the Lamar Valley. Rick McIntyre’s yellow Xterra is parked there, so we pull in next to him. McIntyre, who lives in Silver Gate year round and is the nerve center of wolf watching in this part of the park, says telemetry indicates there are members of the Slough Creek pack high on a shelf above the river near a scattered herd of grazing bison.

McIntyre and some other Watchers are walking up Cardiac Hill, a lookout point high behind us. From there, you can see more deeply into the shelf, which leads out of the valley to the west. We spend awhile glassing the area with Bill, a Wolf Watcher from Kansas that we have seen every year. He says that he and his wife and their dogs have been here a month, with two weeks to go. “Then we go back to work to make enough money to come back in the spring,” he grins, pulling on his long, white beard with a strange grin. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

After about twenty minutes, McIntyre is trudging back down, his voice crackling in the radio that the wolves are heading west out of the Lamar in the direction of Slough Creek.

We drive the couple of miles over to a pull-out near Slough Creek and glass for awhile. A short, cherubic woman is first to spot members of the pack running west along the timberline. We spend the next hour or so leapfrogging the Slough pack members as they parallel the road, running in that familiar wolf lope.

They disappear behind swales and into patches of timber and then pop back out into view. Some stay together; others lag behind, sniffing and playing, like all canines. We keep moving west, setting up ahead of them, watching awhile and then heading off again to get ahead and watch them pass again.

At one pull-out, McIntyre quietly says that if we shut off the engine, we can hear the wolves howling, and he is right. A couple of times in the scope I see a wolf raise its head and mouth a howl, but the sound doesn’t come until a few seconds later as it travels to us.

At another stop, as we’re getting out the scope, a coyote with reddish brown ears runs right past us heading north, glancing every now and then over his shoulder. He pauses at the road before bursting across and continues to wander north as far away from the pack as possible. I am reminded of Bob Crabtree’s comment about coyotes in the wake of wolf reintroduction: There are half as many coyotes in the park — but they are damned smart coyotes. This one might live to see another day.

We get out to the turn-off known as The Boulder in the Little America area, which offers a commanding view to the north that stretches for miles. A squadron of Watchers are scoping a high ridge far away. We join them, and soon enough, we have the Hellroaring pack in our sights, climbing and loitering near a small herd of about a dozen elk near the crest of the ridge. The elk seem to be on alert, which they should be, but the wolves don’t seem to be remotely interested in hunting.

This is our first look at the Hellroaring Pack. I have read in Ralph Maughan’s blog that this pack tends to hang farther west near the Yellowstone Valley. And for all we know, the ridge they are traversing might be above the Yellowstone River – it’s that far away.

In the binoculars, the ten wolves are very small dots with black or grey coloring. Even in the spotting scopes, they are smallish, walking above a big tear in the ridge. Several are loitering along the edge of cliffs.

Other Watchers are looking in the direction of the Sloughs, three of whom apparently crossed the road behind us while we were watching the Hellroaring wolves. The intercom is chattering with questions and reports: “I see three blacks and the grey, one of whom lifted his leg”; “do you see number 490 in that group?”; “has anyone seen that one cross the road?” McIntyre’s even, polite voice dominates the conversation.

Three Sloughs, two black yearlings and a three-year-old grey, are passing through a swale below us, a couple hundred yards off.

McIntyre is sitting at his scope, talking into a tape recorder with times and observations. He turns from the Hellroaring Pack to the Sloughs and back again, occasionally picking up the walkie-talkie to summon and direct his spotters. A couple elk cross the road in the opposite direction of the three wolves, alert, their heads up, noses in the air. They know who’s patrolling the area.

Someone on the radio indicates that Number 490, the Slough pack’s alpha male, crossed the road and then re-crossed back to the south. I hear McIntyre on the intercom telling a Watcher in a pick-up down the road to stop and watch the truck’s red lights come on almost immediately. The wolves are apparently just around a corner.

The Hellroaring pack moves away and up the ridge before bedding down, where they disappear into the sage. We are not macho enough to linger and wait for them to awaken, though some of the more serious and dutiful Watchers will do just that. So we leave after locating three Slough wolves north of the road and watching five others, including Number 490, running back east up a long hill in the direction of the Lamar again. The Watchers are still watching both packs intently as we drive off.

In the afternoon we head out again, with Anne in the van as guide. We don’t have any telemetry, so we’re just going to drive out and see what we can find. We have stopped across from Specimen Ridge, which looks completely different than this morning, when it was covered in white. I can see a bear with my naked eye strolling out across the meadow a couple hundred yards off. In the scope, we find that it is a grizzly, so we watch it for about twenty minutes as it wanders the plain before disappearing beyond the tree line.

This one is slick black, almost blue-black, with a sleek body and what appeared to be a little fat under his belly, like a good bear should possess at this time of year. Its large head would seem to indicate a male, and the head rises often like he’s taking in scents – I wonder if he can smell us? Just before we got here, someone in the car next to us says it rose on his back legs to look around and that it “looked just like a man.”

Which once again reminds us of the similarities between bears and humans. If you look at a skinned bear, it is said that it looks exactly like a human. Our diets are similar; bear researcher Chuck Jonkel says, “If you like it, chances are a bear will probably like it, too.” And, until humans created the repeating rifle and nearly wiped them from the face of the lower Forty Eight, we were equals, vying for our parts of the food chain.

This grizzly is heading up to the high country for a long winter’s nap, and I still don’t discount the theory that we are jealous of these magnificent distant cousins, for their strength, their built-in reproductive constraints and the chance to sleep half the year away. If only they had web access up there in the den …

Watching this grizzly here in Yellowstone reminds us that, like wolves, they are here only because we humans allow them to be. Their respective fates are entirely up to us. If we decide we can’t live with bears, they would become extinct. And they could still wind up that way, from drought, loss of habitat or one or more vital food sources or poor human decision-making — like the current U.S. Fish and Wildlife plans to delist the grizzly from the protections of the Endangered Species Act. It might be time to talk about delisting wolves, but the fate of the grizzly is much more perilous.

The couple who are watching alongside us are providing comic relief. They keep pointing at a few elk and are chattering amongst themselves that the bear is somehow going to “give the elk a run for their money” or sneak up behind them, even though the bear is moving in the opposite direction.

The bear soon ambles into the timber and out of sight. We follow McIntyre’s Xterra over to Slough Creek, where his telemetry indicates that there are wolves. We spend the next 45 minutes until dark looking in vain along the north ridge.

Oh, but they are there. We can hear them well enough, along with a group of coyotes screaming and yipping somewhere in the same general direction. Some of the Watchers apparently can see them from another location behind us. Hearing them is just as good, however, and they keep up a steady howl pretty much the whole time.

Besides, the sunset is absolutely gorgeous, red stripes in the clouds all along the broad western horizon. We have already seen a grizzly, more than 15 wolves, several coyotes (we saw none last year), raven, elk, deer. And a chorus of grey wolves serenades us into the dusk.

Today was as productive as any day we have ever had up here. You just keep giving yourself chances and see what happens.

On the way back, Anne pointed out a beaver dam starting to take shape across Soda Butte Creek just above its junction with the Lamar. Willow bushes, almost non-existent when we first started coming six years ago, are turning red and are again becoming the dominant flora in the wetlands around the stream.

October 11, 2007   No Comments