The Killing of Wolves: Are We Willing to Repeat History?
The Great Debate Over Wolves
With close to 7 million acres of protected land and the largest federally protected contiguous wilderness in the lower 48, Idaho and Wyoming contain a vast expanse of terrain frequented only by wildlife. Venture into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness or into the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park, and you may find yourself accompanied solely by natural inhabitants—animals such as elk, moose, big horn sheep, black bears, and if in Yellowstone, the majestic grizzly or bison. Among the fascinating animals that call the wilderness in these states home, few others have a history as complicated and as politically fueled as wolves.
After Europeans arrived in the Rocky Mountains, wolves were hunted on bounty to the brink of extinction—both for their coats and for attributed livestock killings. The number of wolves was decreased from around 250,000 to numbers only in the hundreds, and finally reached extirpation. In an effort to return wolves to their formerly occupied territories, in the winters of 1995 and 1996, 66 wolves from Canada were reintroduced to Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. As of 2013, the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimate the population of wolves to be around 1,691 with 320 distinguished packs in the Northern Rocky Mountain Districts.
In 2011, the laws protecting gray wolves through the Endangered Species Act were lifted, sparking a controversy that continues to draw attention from political, civil and environmental sectors. Hunting wolves is legal once again, and in addition to the regulated hunting seasons, wolves are allowed to be shot if caught antagonizing or preying on livestock or domestic pets. They may also be shot on sight by ranchers possessing permits.
Today, the word wolf invokes an often heated response among locals and conservationists, ranchers and outfitters, hunters and farmers. Walk into any local watering hole in either territory and mention wolves, and chances are you will find an impassioned crowd. One side argues that wolves kill livestock, are a danger to people, will impose land-use restrictions, and have negatively impacted ungulate populations. Others argue that wolves contribute to forests’ health by keeping deer and elk numbers in check, prevent overgrazing and soil erosion, and are a key factor in keeping the ecosystem balanced.
It’s a complicated topic and has fueled an intense debate over who has the right to kill a wolf, what a wolf should be able to kill, and if wolves have any right to be in Idaho or Wyoming at all. Political and environmental agendas have collided over wolves in ways all too familiar in the outdoor industry. As the debate heats up in Idaho and Wyoming and we venture into the backcountry to explore the mountains and rivers we love, listen closely for the howling of the wolf—it’s a sound that was once eliminated from our forests, and may not be around these wild areas for much longer. Is that a fate we’re prepared to embrace again?
What are your thoughts on the great wolf debate? We’d love to hear your take on the topic.