- Since their reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park in the Mountain West of the United States in the 1990s, the North American gray wolf has recovered, once again taking up the mantle of a keystone species in its environment.
- But the wolf’s resurgence has raised the ire of ranchers and hunters, and new laws allowing expanded wolf hunts have sprung up across the region.
- Biologists contend that wolves play a critical role in maintaining healthy ecosystems, and data suggest that the threat to overall livestock numbers is exaggerated.
- Still, an entrenched fear, perhaps dating to humans’ earliest interactions with wolves, has helped to stir up a desire for vengeance against the species.
In January 2022, I saw my first wild wolf. Even growing up in Idaho, a wolf sighting is rare, and I had never seen one. But from afar, I watched as the world’s largest canine predators resurfaced a conflicting, age-old reputation, one that had dogged them since the time when they were far more common in the U.S. West. Many ranchers have long seen them as only a menace, and some hunters argued that they deplete populations of elk and other game species. Still, most scientists agree they benefit the ecosystem by keeping the elk population under control and acting as a natural apex predator.
When I looked out the window of the snow coach, a bus equipped with skis instead of tires, driving slowly along the road to Madison Junction, the first village inside Yellowstone’s west entrance, I didn’t see a fairy-tale villain or a conservation statistic. Instead, surveying us serenely from a meadow stood an animal that looked as much a part of the natural landscape as the nearby bison or the lingering steam from the geyser basin. The wolf was home. Whether it would be left in peace, however, was an old question with new implications stemming from measures like a recently passed hunting law that allowed the nearly unrestrained killing of the still-recovering species.
By 2021, the number of wolves in Idaho, which shares part of Yellowstone National Park with Wyoming and Montana, had risen higher than it had in decades. However, as the number of wolves increased, so did the strength of the reaction against them.
For several centuries, hunters and trappers had killed wolves so indiscriminately that they’d been wiped out throughout much of their historical range. By the end of the 20th century, a region once home to as many as 2 million wolves found itself with none.
In 1995, scientists released 15 wolves into Yellowstone National Park and just across the national park border in central Idaho, then another 20 in 1996. Soon, pack numbers began to climb. By 2021, Idaho alone had around 1,500 wolves, according to the state’s fish and wildlife service. The North American gray wolf (Canis lupus), it seemed, had managed to bounce back to once again take its place in the menagerie of the continent’s large mammals.
Perhaps predictably, the wolf’s success hasn’t been viewed as a positive development in all corners of the West. In early 2021, the Idaho legislature passed SB1211, a law that allowed 1,350 wolves — nearly 90% of the recovering population — to be killed almost indiscriminately. Ranchers and hunters, the main proponents of the bill, argued that the growing wolf population was taking a toll on cattle numbers.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, however, wolves took only 102 head of livestock out of the 2.8 million cattle and sheep living in Idaho that year. In comparison, about 40,000 per year die from illness or exposure to inclement weather.
Still, the anti-wolf sentiment in the state remains strong.
“When [wolves] are so fearless that they are now walking down the center of a dirt road, that means there’s too many of them,” Idaho state representative Dorothy Moon said in an interview with NPR.
“We’ve got to get this in check,” Moon said during a state legislative hearing on the issue. “All due respect to Fish and Game, they need our help.”
Idaho Fish and Game, however, disagrees. In fact, it openly opposed the bill during the state congressional debate, buttressing its arguments with science showing how essential wolves are to the ecosystem.
For example, scientists studying elk herds in the Mountain West found the increased wolf numbers helped control the elk population, paring it down to sustainable levels with healthier individuals. Fewer elk mean the ecosystem will be less taxed by overgrazing, allowing the recovery of ecosystem niches like aspen groves. In another study, scientists found that wolves may help counterbalance the effects of climate change. Shorter, milder winters mean that fewer elk die each year, and that means there’s less meat available for scavengers. But more wolf kills raise the chances that ravens (Corvus corax), coyotes (Canis latrans) and even grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) will find the carrion they need to see them through.
Still, the loss of a calf or a lamb to wolves does impact individual ranchers and their bottom lines, despite the rarity of the occurrence. What is up for debate, however, is whether legislation allowing the killing of wolves solves the problem. In a study published in Global Ecology and Conservation, a team led by ecologist Paolo Ciucci of Sapienza University of Rome argues that a more effective method to stop apex predators like wolves from preying on livestock would be to pass laws more strictly regulating livestock management practices.
In their research, Ciucci and his colleagues emphasized that instead of killing wolves, a more beneficial ecological approach could be “minimizing accessibility to livestock.” Fences, increased land monitoring and additional government oversight are all options to limit wolves’ contact with domestic animals, and they would allow the wolf to continue to play its important role as the region’s apex predator.
That would mean, then, that saving cattle — the number one justification for passing laws like SB1211 — should arguably be less about killing predators and more about regulating their access to prey. No such legislation has ever been discussed in Idaho, however.
Laws and measures relying on killing wolves in Idaho and elsewhere seem driven more by an urge to destroy wolves than to protect livestock. Motivated by fear of the carnivores perpetuated by folklore and superstitions, hunters have decimated wolf numbers across the globe. But humans, it turns out, are by far the more dangerous predator, and historically, wolf hunts have hardly been humane affairs.
Idaho’s new wolf law is unprecedented in the scope and breadth of what it allows. Hunters can shoot the animals from planes, helicopters, four-wheelers or snowmobiles. They can trap or snare the wolves year-round on private property, and they can buy as many hunting tags as they want. They can even target wolf pups. The law imposes no limits.
Today, as in the past, these hunters will be reimbursed by the government for their expenses in hunting down wolves. In 2021, Idaho ranked third in the U.S., behind only Alaska and Montana, for rewarding hunters; it earmarked $810,000 for wolf killings that year. By contrast, the state ranks dead last in the nation for its education spending per public student, according to the Idaho Education Foundation.
By the time I saw my first wolf loping through the sparse trees of a Yellowstone landscape, danger seemed to be close at hand. In the direction we were traveling was the border of the park, beyond which it would no longer be protected. It followed along with the coach for a while, moving easily through the deep snow.
I wondered what it might encounter if it ventured another 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, and found itself in West Yellowstone or Island Park, beyond the safety of the national park’s boundaries. Would it become one of the 90% killed under Idaho’s law? Would it be shot from a helicopter or hunted down from the back of an all-terrain vehicle? Would it kill a rancher’s cattle? As these questions swirled in my head, I watched until it disappeared into the trees. The wolf didn’t look back.
Banner image: A gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park. Image by Cathy via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Ciucci, P., Mancinelli, S., Boitani, L., Gallo, O., & Grottoli, L. (2020). Anthropogenic food subsidies hinder the ecological role of wolves: Insights for conservation of apex predators in human-modified landscapes. Global Ecology and Conservation, 21, e00841. doi:10.1016/j.gecco.2019.e00841
Ripple, W. J., Larsen, E. J., Renkin, R. A., & Smith, D. W. (2001). Trophic cascades among wolves, elk and aspen on Yellowstone National Park’s northern range. Biological Conservation, 102(3), 227-234. doi:10.1016/s0006-3207(01)00107-0
Wilmers, C. C., & Getz, W. M. (2005). Gray wolves as climate change buffers in Yellowstone. PLOS Biology, 3(4), e92. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030092