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By Lindsay Larris
Gray wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.
It had seemed for the past half century that perhaps the worst of wolf killing was finally over. After centuries of methodic extermination had nearly completely wiped the animals out of the lower forty-eight, government agencies, scientists, and the general public began to see wolves not primarily as threats to private property, but rather, as invaluable ecological assets that stabilized the ecosystems relied upon by many in the West.
In 1974, the gray wolf was one of the first imperiled species to receive federal protections under the newly-passed Endangered Species Act, As wolves were subsequently reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid 1990s, and thus began migrating to regain their historic range, they slowly began to recover.
A series of recent events across the country make clear this work of wolf recovery has never been in greater jeopardy. In January, the Trump administration finalized the removal of gray wolves from the list of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act and, within a matter of weeks, we witnessed a disturbing new chapter in the nation’s history of needless and irresponsible wolf killing.
In Wisconsin, just two weeks ago, over 27,000 people applied for an ill-conceived hunt during the wolves’ mating season that, in only three days, left 216 gray wolves dead. Shocked state officials had to call off the hunt prematurely, but not before the three-day slaughter led to 82 percent more wolf deaths than the state had allocated for the entire hunting and trapping season.
Meanwhile, in Montana, a state in which wolves lost Endangered Species Act protections in 2011, not by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the “Service), but by a political act of Congress, the federal delisting emboldened the state to up its efforts to eliminate wolves from the landscape. In the past month, the Montana Senate passed a bill allowing for private bounties for dead wolves and the Montana House passed a bill expanding hunting and trapping seasons (and allowing snares) in an effort to further reduce wolf populations. The traps and snares, which often prolong an animal’s death, are indiscriminate and dangerous not only to wolves but also to non-target species. In a recent six-year period in Montana, for example, at least 350 non-target animals, ranging from mountain lions to pet dogs, were caught in traps. Montana’s recent laws to incentivize and further enable wolf hunting are not simply inhumane, they severely threaten to undo gray wolf recovery efforts and destabilize ecosystems.
These recent activities follow on the heels of a similarly unsettling example of failed state-level wolf management in Idaho, where wolves have also been delisted since 2011. There, over a recent twelve-month period, trappers, hunters, and state and federal agencies killed an astounding 570 wolves, including at least thirty-five wolf pups as young as four weeks old. These wolves, some of whom died of hypothermia in traps or were gunned down from helicopters, represented nearly sixty percent of the total estimated wolf population in the state at the end of 2019. This high number of wolf kills directly reflect the state’s wolf policies: Idaho recently increased the legal limit of wolves an individual can kill in a year to thirty, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game currently funds wolf bounty programs in the state.
Taken together, the examples of Idaho, Wisconsin, and Montana give us all the evidence we need that state-led management does not ensure the protection and recovery of gray wolves.
This horrifying slaughter of wolves in just a few states—based not on science, but on fear and hatred for a long persecuted species—is why WildEarth Guardians has joined a broad coalition of groups across the country to challenge the Service’s decision to delist wolves in court. Wolves have not recovered in the West and the decision to delist them goes against the intent of the Endangered Species Act, which not only mandates the federal government to forestall the extermination of gray wolves but also, crucially, to promote their full recovery. Although this law has played an enormous role in preventing the wholesale loss of gray wolves in the contiguous US, its work to ensure their continued survival and recovery, as these recent examples in Montana, Idaho, and Wisconsin make all too clear, is far from finished.
To let the work of gray wolf recovery go unfinished would be a tragedy hard to tabulate. Gray wolves are a keystone species that play a critical role in the ecological health of their historic range. Being listed under the Endangered Species Act has allowed gray wolves to begin to rebound in the upper Great Lakes region, yet their recovery there does nothing for the populations of gray wolves throughout the West, where the animals remain largely absent or underpopulated in their historic range. For example, in Oregon and Washington, estimates indicate less than 150 wolves in each state while in Colorado, a location in which wolves roamed across all landscapes in the 1800s through early 1900s, has only reported sightings of a handful of lone wolves in the last two years. The example of success in the upper Great Lakes region should not be used to dismantle wolf protections, but rather, to illustrate the continued need for those protections throughout the country where wolf populations remain extremely vulnerable. Only ongoing federal protections, based on scientific data, will guarantee gray wolves a continued and healthy future in this country. To that end, please urge the Biden administration to restore Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves.
As our nation reckons with its story of conquest, recent killing sprees of gray wolves in the remote forests of Wisconsin or the northern Rockies should not go unnoticed. The brutal and bloody history of gray wolves—along with other native megafauna such as bison—in our country is inextricably tied to the larger history of colonization and violence that continues to shape our society. Our country has a deep history of White settlers demonizing the animals in folklore and frontier mythology and equating Native Americans to wolves and other animals within the broader project of colonization. Seen in this light, recent wolf hunts such as what we recently witnessed in Wisconsin are not merely mismanaged debacles, they are part of a much deeper, far more tragic, story. “Wolves symbolized the frustrations and anxieties of colonization,” as historian Jon T. Coleman has written regarding wolf history in this country, “and the canines paid in blood for their utility as metaphor.”
As we are painfully aware, the history of colonization, and of White frustrations and anxieties surrounding colonization, is ongoing. Gray wolves, sadly, may continue to be part of the story. But gray wolves, and the unsound policies and unethical practices aimed at killing them, also present a way to dive deeper into the nation’s history of colonization and violence in search of ways to reconsider a better future. Wolves are “living reminders of colonization,” in Coleman’s words, that “embody an unbroken history of conquest worth pondering and protecting.” As the nation grapples with its history, protecting the gray wolf is not simply about ensuring healthy ecosystems; it is also about preserving a living historical monument to our nation’s violent past and reaffirming a commitment to rise above that legacy of conquest.