Claiming a victory for the Endangered Species Act, Interior Secretary
Bruce Babbitt announced this summer that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service plans to move gray wolves off the endangered species list.
"Wolves are a living symbol of the regard Americans have for all
things wild," Babbitt said in a press release. "We as a people have
made the choice to do the right thing and bring these animals back
from the brink of extinction."
But the environmentalists that have fought hardest for wolf recovery
see another side to this story. "Fish and Wildlife's proposal isn't
a national vision," says Bob Ferris of Defenders of Wildlife. "It's
an exit strategy." Ferris says delisting wolves while they are still
confined to less than 5 percent of their historical range is a capitulation
to the right-wing political forces who have fought the wolf as the
living symbol of all things wild, predatory and federally protected.
When wolves were placed on the Endangered Species list in 1974,
they had been
almost totally exterminated from the continental United States, victims
of federal and state bounty programs that targeted them as a threat
to livestock. A single wolfpack roamed Isle Royal in Lake Superior.
Less than a thousand wolves survived in Minnesota's North Woods. Rumors
of lone wolves roaming down from Canada floated like ghosts through
Montana. A few red wolves, a separate species, hung on in the great
swamps of East Texas. That was all that remained of what was once
one of the nation's most ubiquitous animals. (Despite the best efforts
of its state government and congressional delegation, Alaska so far
has maintained a robust population of gray wolves.)
With the newfound protection of the Endangered Species Act, the
gray (or timber) wolf began a gradual recovery. Wolves as a species
are social animals that depend on an intricate pack structure for
survival. But at any given time, 10 to 15 percent of the population
are lone wolves, mostly young animals that have left packs in the
hopes of finding mates and establishing a new pack. As these lone
wolves explore new territory, they leave their marks, and gradually
other wolves filter in and new packs are established.
Through this process gray wolves living in Canada and Minnesota
developed self-sustaining populations in Montana, Wisconsin and
Michigan by the mid-'90s. Without endangered status, wolf advocates
say, the lone wolves that started those populations would have all
been killed by hunters, farmers or state wildlife agencies.
But as wolves returned, the seeds of rural distrust of wolf recovery
were planted. For a Minnesota dairy farmer already beleaguered by
market forces and multinational agricultural conglomerates, having
the government call shooting a shotgun into the air to scare off
the gray wolf that is eyeing your herd the illegal harassment of
an endangered animal can be downright disheartening.
Organized opposition to wolf recovery comes largely from ranchers'
organizations in states where wolves are returning. "Wolves were
extirpated for a reason," says Sharon Beck of the Oregon Cattlemen's
Association, which is fighting the reintroduction of wolves in that
state. "You can't have livestock production or huntable wildlife
when wolves are around."
But contrary to the predictions of wolf opponents, wolves have
not ravaged surrounding livestock in two of the most ambitious projects
for wolf recovery: the reintroduction of wolves to Idaho and Yellowstone
Park. Wolf predation near Yellowstone has averaged less than the
19 cattle and 68 sheep per year predicted in the reintroduction
plan's environmental impact statement, says Ed Bangs, chief of the
Fish and Wildlife Service's Northern Rockies wolf recovery program.
In comparison, livestock producers in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem
average yearly losses to disease and weather of 8,300 cattle and
Where wolves have re-established themselves, Bangs notes, "we have
seen a lot of the hysteria and extreme positions die down. People
see they are not going to snatch children from playgrounds and they
are not going to balance nature and make us all better people. They
are just animals that do some neat things, but sometimes they also
do things we don't like."
With self-sustaining gray wolf populations in Yellowstone, Idaho,
Montana and the Upper Great Lakes States, the government is ready
to delist the wolf and declare its work done. "The Endangered Species
Act does not require that animals be restored over their historic
range. It only requires that we bring them back from the brink of
extinction," says Ron Refsnider of the Fish and Wildlife Service,
who authored the wolf reclassification and delisting proposal.
Under the Fish and Wildlife Service plan, existing wolf populations
would be reclassified as a threatened species as a prelude to removing
all federal protection from the wolves. Under threatened status,
the existing wolf populations will retain federal protection, but
Fish and Wildlife officials can kill wolves that are killing livestock,
rather than relocate them as is required for endangered animals.
Once all federal protection is removed, which Bangs says could happen
as soon as 2003, it will mean the end of federal wolf reintroduction
efforts. The management of existing wolf populations and any future
reintroduction programs will depend upon state governments.
"This proposal cripples any future reintroduction efforts," says
Ferris of Defenders of Wildlife. He co-authored a report titled
"Places for Wolves" that identifies numerous additional areas--such
as the wilderness of California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington State--where
wolves could be reintroduced or allowed to repopulate with minimal
impact on human economic activity. And while Ferris praises Fish
and Wildlife's decision to leave the door open to wolf recovery
in Maine, he says that even that option will depend on the state
taking action. "If wolf recovery had been left up to the states
there wouldn't be any wolves in the lower 48 states," Ferris says.
State governments also have proven to be much more easily swayed
by the rhetoric and lobbying of those opposed to wolf recovery.
Asked to produce a wolf management plan for its robust wolf population,
Minnesota's legislature approved a plan that included a $150 bounty
on wolves. (Environmentalists have sued to block that plan.) Colorado
still has a bounty on wolves, even though they are extinct there.
Even after delisting, gray wolves would be subject to federal
monitoring and could be placed back on the federal endangered list
if states fail to manage them responsibly, but wolves that roam
into new territory, such as the Idaho wolves that are starting to
roam into Oregon, would have no protection and could be shot on
Last year a female wolf named B-45 crossed into Oregon from Idaho
searching for a mate. Under pressure from legislators favorable
to the livestock lobby and the Oregon State Wildlife Agencies, the
Fish and Wildlife Service captured B-45 and returned her to Idaho.
Ferris insists that this was an illegal action. "The minute she
crossed into Oregon she qualified as endangered," he says.
Bangs responds that his agency has the authority to remove Idaho
wolves that cross the Oregon border. He adds, however, that the
Fish and Wildlife Service has decided not to remove any future wolves
that roam into Oregon unless the wolves attack livestock or cause
Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith introduced legislation this summer that
would have required Fish and Wildlife to remove any future wolves
that roam into the state. Smith, who consistently portrays himself
as one of those newfangled, eco-friendly suburban Republicans, chose
to insert the anti-wolf language as an anonymous rider to this year's
Senate Interior Appropriations Bill. Beck of the Oregon Cattlemen's
Association says the original language of the bill "came from us,"
explaining that the goal of the rider was to keep wolves out of
Oregon as long as they have endangered protection. However, the
Clinton administration intervened to water down the language to
a suggestion that the Fish and Wildlife Service be more attentive
to local concern about returning wolves.
But while Babbitt was heralding the federal government's success
in saving wolves, it was the opponents of wolf recovery who welcomed
the proposed reclassification and delisting. "They never should
have been protected in the first place," Beck says. xxx"We think
the delisting is a step in the right direction," adds Rick Krause,
a lawyer for the American Farm Bureau Federation, a conglomerate
of insurance companies that operate under the auspices of a nonprofit
organization devoted to promoting agricultural interests. The Farm
Bureau has been among the leading opponents of wolf recovery, suing
to stop wolf reintroduction efforts in Yellowstone and the Southwest.
Fighting wolf recovery has been part of a larger Farm Bureau campaign
to weaken the Endangered Species Act. "We believe that modern society
cannot continue to operate on the basis that all species must be
preserved at all cost," reads the Farm Bureau's 1999 policy manual.
The Farm Bureau also has portrayed wolf recovery as a federal land
grab. "The whole wolf program was a fraud," writes Jake Cummins
of the Montana Farm Bureau on the group's Web site. "The real goal
was to use the Endangered Species Act to expand federal land use
Yet while whipping up opposition to wolves among rural people as
a symbol of its devotion to the welfare of family ranchers, the
Farm Bureau simultaneously has been lobbying for policies that favor
the multinational agricultural conglomerates and threaten those
ranchers' futures. This is the hidden irony of wolf recovery: The
opposition to the gray wolf's comeback shows how powerful interests
can use an endangered animal to distract the people most harmed
by their policies.
Refusing to coexist with wolves was gospel to the great-grandparents
of the ranchers now opposing the return of wolves. But now these
ranchers are themselves threatened by the rise of a new agricultural
system in which multinational corporations control the prices ranchers
get for livestock. Across the country, Farm Bureau affiliates and
cooperatives are intertwined with agricultural multinationals.
To cite an example from "Amber Waves of Gain," a report on the
Farm Bureau compiled by Defenders of Wildlife, the Idaho Farm Bureau's
affiliated insurance companies own $500,000 in bonds from agribusiness
giant Archer Daniels Midland. The report also describes how the
Farm Bureau quietly lobbied against Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone's
1999 bill that would have placed an 18-month moratorium on agribusiness
mergers, while posting a letter on its Web site blaming President
Clinton for not backing the bill.
"The Farm Bureau represents the monied interests," says Joel Dyer,
author of Harvest of Rage. "If they can blame the economic
pressure on family ranchers on environmentalists and wolves, it
distracts attention. The family rancher is threatened, but it doesn't
have anything to do with wolves. It's because three companies control
the market for beef."
Like the spotted owl in the Northwest, the battle over wolf recovery
has been used by corporate interests to drive a wedge between natural
allies--threatened family ranchers striving to preserve the integrity
of their land, and environmentalists trying to preserve and restore
threatened ecosystems. In this light, Fish and Wildlife's decision
to begin the process of delisting wolves, essentially limiting them
to their current range, represents a lost opportunity. Learning
to coexist with wolves encourages the kind of dialogue between environmentalists
and rural people that could result in better land-use policies.
Vast areas of California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington State could
support populations of gray wolves, but most likely will never see
a wolf again under the current Fish and Wildlife proposal. Unless
there is a great public outcry, Babbitt's decision to declare victory
in the wolf wars and withdraw federal support will close off America's
remaining wild areas to wolves. "Having wolves in an area gives
people the idea that area is wild," Ferris says. "Shutting the door
on wolves shuts the door on that area ever being wild."
Kevin Burke is a writer in Portland, Oregon. Readers interested
in viewing the proposal to reclassify and delist the gray wolf can
find it at http://www.midwest.fws.gov/wolf.
Until November 13, the Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public
comments on the proposal at email@example.com.