Lynne Stone, longtime wolf advocate and executive director of central Idaho’s Boulder White Clouds Council in Ketchum, couldn’t help but laugh. For the last two years she has routinely petitioned the Idaho Dept of Fish and Game for every single “ Big Game Mortality Report” filed on wolves killed by hunters —several hundred of them since the animals lost Endangered Species Act protection. Hunters and trappers are required to send in the report along with the skull and pelt for examination. In mid-January Stone ran across a November 2012 report that stated, “DNA came back as a domestic dog,” a light-skinned one.
Photo Flickr/CC BY 2.0
“Buy a wolf tag, shoot a dog, claim it was a wolf, get bragging rights and a dog-skin rug,” she chuckled “Life is wonderful in 3rd world Idaho. Is anyone missing a light colored mutt? Maybe it’s time folks put orange vests and hats on their dogs.”
Gallows humor is all wolf supporters have left. In February 2011, Congress removed gray wolves in the northern Rockies from protection by the Endangered Species Act, the first time a species has ever been delisted for political reasons. Before that, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s reintroduction of wolves to the northern Rockies in the mid-1990s appeared to be one of the greatest conservation successes in decades. Wolves had been killed off in the West in the late ninetheenth and early centuries centuries. But while tourists from all over the country came to Yellowstone in hopes of seeing “Cinderella” or “Limpy” — many of the wolves became named — in the Rockies a reactionary political movement developed against the animals.
By the late 1990s, the northern Rockies had become a redoubt for America’s far-right wing extremist groups: paramilitary culture advocates who saw themselves as armed warriors facing federal tyranny, ranchers angry that they did not own the lands they leased from the federal government to graze cows, hunters who saw the region’s deer and elk as their private property, and those who hated all forms of environmental regulation. These groups created a common mythology, both resurrecting old forms of wolf demonization — wolves as evil, related to the devi l— and inventing new ones: wolves as foreign invaders from Canada, wolves as icons of the federal government, wolves as disease-ridden with deadly tape worms, wolves as “killing machines” that would wipe out the region’s livestock, and in time, hunt people for food and sport. (For more, see my Earth Island Journal story, “Cry, Wolf” from the Summer 2011 edition.)
From the far-right, wolf demonization spread to the mainstream Republican parties in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, and as the movement gained momentum Democratic leaders capitulated and began to advocate removing wolves from federal protection. Montana Senator John Tester, a Democrat facing a tough re-election bid in 2012 from Republican Congressman Danny Rehberg, sponsored a legislative “rider” to a federal budget bill that delisted wolves. The bill passed both houses and President Obama signed it.
In the spring of 2011 at least 1,000 adult wolves lived in Idaho. The state’s first hunt in 2011-2012 saw hunters shoot 255 and trap 124 — roughly 40 percent of the entire population. But that wasn’t enough for Idaho state officials, who want to reduce the wolf population to 152, the legal minimum before federal regulations would require wolf relisting under the Endangered Species Act. So for the current hunting season, wolf bag limits were increased to 10 shot and 5 trapped, more than twice the previous count. Despite the increased limits, hunters haven’t been able to dramatically increase their kills. In the current 2012-2013 season, hunters have thus far shot 157 and trapped 46.
“There’s less wolves out there,” explains Brett Haverstick, education and outreach director Northern Idaho’s Friends of the Clearwater. “The wolves are figuring things out, figuring out where is a safe place and where isn’t.”
Although the wolf body count is down, the demonization of wolves as symbolic enemies escalates. “The wolf hunts are part of a much larger culture war,” Haverstick says. “Out here many people still believe it’s an endless frontier. The individual should shouldn’t be held back by any restrictions put on them. The wolves were eliminated 100 years ago and that was part of being a good westerner, the conquest of nature. Now wolves are caught in a struggle between the Old West and the New West. Those wolf carcasses you see in social media photos, you would think it’s Osama bin Laden hanging from the rafters and that the hunters are proudly serving their country, posing with their assault rifles. This is about going into the forest and removing evils from American society.”
Some people even fantasize about mowing down entire wolf packs with assault rifles. In early January — not long after the shootings in Newton, Connecticut renewed national calls for limiting semi-automatic rifles with large magazines — a wolf-hunter social media site with the rather ironic name, Save Western Wildlife, came to the defense of these weapons. It pictured a dozen wolves frolicking in a snowy meadow. Here are some of the choice comments that accompanies the wolf photo: “Perfect reason for a so-called ‘assault weapon’”; “Proof as to why we need AR-15s”; “Nothing a 30- round clip wouldn’t take care of”; “Looks like a good place for more TARGET PRACTICE on some moving targets that BLEED!!!!!”; “Unleash me!” If the wolf killing represents target practice, then evidently the practice is for shooting humans. The fantasy war against wolves overlaps with fantasies of killing people.
But these paramilitary warriors did not kill enough wolves to satisfy state officials. Idaho Fish and Game will now pay the expenses of trappers. A bill in the Idaho house proposes that wolf traps can be baited with wolf carcasses and those of other big game animals so that a hunter could kill a deer or wolf and then stake out traps. The IDG has reallocated $50,000 from the state’s coyote eradication campaign to the federal government’s Wildlife Services, a branch of the Department of Agriculture that kills wildlife. Wildlife Service shooters in helicopters will be deployed against wolves, not because the wolves are thought to have killed livestock, but simply to reduce their numbers down to the legal minimum on the grounds that fewer wolves means more elk for hunters.
Suzanne Stone, Defender of Wildlife’s regional leader in Boise, disputes this reasoning. “We’re down to less than 500 wolves,” she says. “Idaho’s got 3,000 mountain lions, 20,000 black bears, 50,000 coyotes, 250,000 deer and 100,000 elk. Wolves are being treated very differently than other wildlife. Wolves have become the poster-child of the far-right — it’s anger and fear. People establish their identities around hating wolves. The state’s goal is not recovery. It’s as if they are trying to manage a patient on life support and keep them there.”
The situation is much the same in Montana. So far more than 170 wolves have been trapped and shot in the state’s still ongoing 2012-2013 season; that figure is roughly equal to the number shot in the 2011-2012 season. But although Montana lacks Idaho’s theatrics, this year’s hunt had a special sadness. Hunters operating just west of Yellowstone National Park killed at least three radio-collared wolves in the fall of 2012. These wolves lived primarily in Yellowstone and their deaths received national attention — the first sustained publicity in the 2012-2013 season. As one wolf hunter commented on a blog: “The hunts have flown under the radar to a much larger extent nationally than a lot of the NGOs had hoped … Drilling wolves that are well known inside the park by large numbers of visitors presents an opportunity to elevate the wolf issue to the national level.” Montana wildlife commissioners apparently concurred, voting on December 1 to close wolf hunting in several areas adjacent to the park.
However, Big Game Forever, a hunting organization, filed suit to reopen hunting and won its case in early January on the grounds that the commission had not conducted adequate public hearings before closure. The Montana House subsequently voted 100-0 on a bill recommended by the Department of Fish, Game, and Parks to make the commission’s prohibition of wolf hunting in areas adjacent to national parks illegal unless an area’s quota has been met. If the Montana Senate passes the bill and it is signed into law, wolves in Yellowstone will more likely remain confined, unable to disperse west of the park and breed with other wolves.
Wolf isolation also figures in Wyoming’s management strategy. Wyoming wants a maximum wolf population of 100. Officials classify wolves as “trophy” animals regulated by bag limits in roughly 15 percent of the state just east of Yellowstone. Hunters shot 46 and trapped 31 in the 2012-2013 season, including at least three radio-collared wolves, among them the famous, often photographed 832F, the majestic alpha female of the Lamar Canyon pack. In the remaining 85 percent of Wyoming state officials have declared wolves “predators” that can be shot, trapped, poisoned, or killed in any other way, with no limits. Hunters do not report their kills. It is not clear how many of Wyoming’s estimated 330 wolves that were alive in early 2012 remain. The Yellowstone wolves are thus blocked from further dispersal to the east.
Last November, 12 national and regional conservation groups — including the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Clearwater, and Western Watersheds Project — filed suit in a federal district court against Wyoming and the US Interior Department. The suit claims the plan violates the Endangered Species Act by writing off so much of the wolf population and leaving the remaining wolves genetically isolated in the Yellowstone “island.”
Only one other hope for wolves remains open in the short-term. Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, who oversaw wolf delisting, announced his resignation in early January. It is possible that another secretary — Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva is the environmental movement’s preferred choice — might change policy. In the long run wolf advocates cling to the hope that the urban New West — with its more wildlife friendly populations — will gain political strength and spearhead a national movement to put wolves back on the list of endangered species.
For now, however, the wolves are on their own.
(A previous version of this report located Boulder White Clouds Council in northern Idaho. It is in central Idaho. It also inaccurately reported that hunters have shot 152 and trapped 124 wolves in Idaho in the current 2012-2013 season. The correct number for wolves tapped in the current season is 46. The kill number, as of January 31, is 157.
Also, the famous 832F alpha female from the Lamar Canyon Pack, were not killed in Montana. She was shot in Wyoming, outside the park.)
Earlier Journal stories on this issue:
January 17, 2013: Wolf Hatred is a Gateway to Bigotry
March 28, 2012: Wolf Torture and Execution Continues in the Northern Rockies
November 14, 2011: Hunters Have Killed More than 180 Wolves in the Northern Rockies
July 21, 2011: Dead Wolves Walking
June 1, 2011: Cry, Wolf (Summer 2011 cover story)