Is Gassing Wolf Pups Better Than Hunting Their Parents?

Environmentalists force a tough choice in the Northern Rockies.


Bozeman, Montana—My father shot the neighbors' dogs when they formed packs and turned wild at night, killing our sheep. It wasn't something he liked to do, and our neighbors certainly didn't like it. But most of them understood it was his right to shoot the marauding canines when they began to destroy his property. The same rules can and should apply to wolves owned by the taxpayers, something environmentalists and others are having a hard time accepting.

There haven't always been wolves at Yellowstone. After a lot of lobbying, environmentalists managed to get them reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s. This was a good idea. Wolves had been extirpated in the 1920s as a menace to livestock and wildlife like elk. Hunting is forbidden in the park, so without predators to control their numbers, the population of elk and bison expanded, causing damage to the park. For example, elk began fearlessly lounging around stream sides munching on young willows and aspen, drastically depleting their numbers. With fewer willows and aspen to forage, beavers became rarer. Once wolves were reintroduced, elk became warier and spent more time hiding in forests. This has allowed willow and aspen stands to recover which in turn has resulted in an increase in beavers. In addition, the charismatic wolves are attracting tourist dollars to the regional economy.

Of course, wolves do not prey only on dietarily-traditional elk and other wildlife. They also go after cows and sheep on ranches surrounding the park and the national forests in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Hunters also did not want to have to compete with wolves for elk. Consequently, lots of ranchers and hunters in the Northern Rockies opposed the reintroduction of wolves.

In an effort to address the concerns of ranchers and other locals, one environmental group, Defenders of Wildlife, set up a private program to compensate ranchers and farmers for livestock killed by wolves. Over the past 14 years, Defenders paid out $1.4 million to cover livestock killed by wolves. Nevertheless, many ranchers were not satisfied with the program. Why not? Consider the situation of generally pro-wolf ranch manager Todd Graham in Montana's Madison Valley: A pack of five wolves moved onto the ranch he was managing and began preying on his cattle. Killing cows is bad enough, but the presence of wolves also agitates the herd. Anxious cows are skinny cows. Lost weight equals lost money. Graham estimates that this amounted to an uncompensated loss of around $200,000. Graham tried using a variety of techniques to coexist with the wolves, but they continued to kill his cows and so he eventually got permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to shoot them.

The population of wolves in the Northern Rockies has boomed, rising from 66 introduced wolves to more than 1,700 today. As a consequence, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ruled in 2008 that the Northern Rocky Mountain wolves were "no longer an endangered or threatened [PDF] species pursuant to the Endangered Species Act" and that the restored wolf population "has exceeded its biological recovery goals, and all threats for the foreseeable future have been sufficiently reduced or eliminated." The FWS agreed to allow the Montana and Idaho state game agencies to manage wolf populations in the future which would include limited hunting. Idaho and Montana authorized managed wolf hunting in 2009, with 72 wolves harvested in Montana and 185 wolves bagged in Idaho. Both states planned to go ahead with a second wolf hunting season in the fall of 2010.

Wolf hunting infuriated many environmentalist groups—including the Defenders of Wildlife, who opposed the FWS ruling that the wolves were no longer endangered by filing a suit in federal court. In August, a federal district judge in Montana vacated [PDF] the FWS decision, declaring instead that wolves still merited endangered status. The judge's ruling turned on the technicality that while the FWS had decided Montana's and Idaho's wolf management plans were acceptable, Wyoming's was not. In effect, this means that Wyoming's wolves are still "endangered." The judge essentially decided that if some Northern Rocky Mountain wolves are "endangered" then all Northern Rocky Mountain wolves are endangered. Head of the environmental consultancy Conservation BenchMarks and Montana resident Whitney Tilt dismisses the judge's decision as being "without biological merit." He adds, "Wolf numbers are way past recovery targets with or without Wyoming on board."

The environmentalist victory in federal court may backfire on wolf advocates. After the judge ruled in its favor, Defenders of Wildlife decided to end its livestock compensation program. The group said its program was no longer needed since the federal government set up a similar $1 million fund in 2009. And since hunting seasons are outlawed, state game agencies are now considering other options for managing wolf populations. Some proposals for controlling wolves include gassing wolf pups in their dens, sterilizing adults, and authorizing "research" hunts. Tilt maintains that wolves should be managed as a protected core in Yellowstone National Park and the seven National Forests immediately around the park. Outside that area, management policies should be linked to the desires of local citizens as expressed through their state governments.

Tilt believes that by opposing reasonable solutions, activists "are doing more to kill wolves by increasing citizen anger against wolves than last year's wolf hunt." Ranchers should be allowed to protect their property from wolves, just as my father protected our sheep from our neighbor's dogs.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.