Civil Liberties

Running From Wolves

Ranchers see a threat to their property in federal wolf program


All ranchers fear predators that threaten to kill their sheep or cattle. But the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's scheme to reintroduce the wolf to the Yellowstone Park region and central Idaho has them fearing another predator: federal land-use regulators.

"We're not really dealing with an endangered species here, we're dealing with land-use control," says Ken Hamilton of the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation. Hamilton's group and others are suing to end Fish & Wildlife's plan to reintroduce wolves into an area they've been absent from since the 1940s–most of them killed as part of a federal program in the early part of the century.

A federal judge in January rejected an injunction to delay the wolves' reintroduction pending resolution of the lawsuit. Thus, 30 wolves will be reintroduced immediately, with more to come each year.

Hamilton fears a bevy of controls could skulk into the lives of local ranchers and loggers along with the wolves. Such controls could include more restricted grazing permits, harsh legal punishment for harming the wolves, restrictions on predator controls, and timber sales halted on the mere claim of seeing a wolf track in the area. Ranchers also have the more prosaic concern that the hungry predators will eat their livestock.

All, says Jim Streeter of the National Wilderness Institute, to protect a species that isn't even in danger of extinction. Under the Endangered Species Act, he says, "a local population can be considered a species even if the species as a whole isn't endangered. Wolves and grizzly bears can be listed as endangered because of endangered local populations. Extinction is not an issue with the wolf."

Streeter also raises doubts about whether the wolves, who are to be taken from parts of Canada, are even full-blooded. "There is some thought those wolves might have some coyote and dog genetics," he says. "There have been three contradictory opinions from Interior about whether hybrids are protected under the ESA."

Others oppose the program for different reasons. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund is also suing to stop the program, since wolves introduced under it will be considered "experimental" and thus lack complete ESA protection. They want to wait for the natural wolf migration they expect to occur.