In Wolf Country: The Power & Politics of ReintroductionPosted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF Staff Writer on January 15, 2015
Perfectly timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone, a brand new book, In Wolf Country, from writer Jim Yuskavitch, hit the presses last week. This thoroughly-researched volume chronicles that transition, from the 1973 passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to the mid-90s reintroduction, to their dispersal throughout the Northern Rockies. In Wolf Country also offers a distinctive look at the struggle of wolves in the anti-wolf climate of Idaho. ALDF spoke with the author recently about this new contribution to wolf and wildlife studies.
“Wolves are unique from other species protected under the ESA,” says Jim Yuskavitch. That’s one reason the ESA is so important: it is a law guided by science, rather than politics. “Wolves were deliberately killed off by people and have only returned because the ESA prevented people from killing them off again.”
Protection under the ESA is absolutely critical for wolves, because some people would exterminate them completely if the law allowed it. For example, “Idaho is trying to reduce its de-listed wolf population to the federal minimum of 150.” Recently, a predator “killing contest” near Salmon, Idaho, allowed hunters to kill wolves, coyotes, foxes, and other native wildlife despite massive public uproar. The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) canceled the permits for the event under pressure from a conservation lawsuit (and tens of thousands of advocates including ALDF supporters), but the event went ahead on non-BLM land.
California recently relisted wolves under the ESA, and this was likely out of concern for a wolf named “OR-7” (named “Journey” by schoolchildren in hopes he would become ‘too famous to kill’). OR-7 made a long journey through Northern California before finding a mate and having pups in Southern Oregon. That wolf and his family may return to California, and if they do, they will be protected by law.
But wolves will not always have ESA protections. From a legal standpoint, anti-wolf interests look to Fish and Wildlife commissions and state legislatures to reduce protections for wolves,” Jim says. “Wolf advocates need to be ready to protect wolves at the state level once the federal government is out of the picture.” For example, management of wolves was returned to states like Montana and Idaho. Wyoming’s haphazard shoot-on-sight wolf management “plan” was at first rejected by the feds. But in 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) handed over control. Thankfully, that decision was invalidated in 2014 after a lawsuit from a conservation coalition showed Wyoming was unable to properly manage wolves in that state.
Currently, the USFWS is considering removing wolves from ESA protection even though reintroduction is still in its early days. And irrational hostility to wolves, fueled by media sensationalism, helps create a culture where laws are not governed by science, but by fear. Wolf kills are sensationalized in the media, and prey upon fears rooted in the collective unconscious, even though far more “livestock” animals are killed by childbirth, disease, and other predators than by wolves. “If more reporters put into perspective how small the impact of wolves really is, reporting on wolves would be much different.”
That clash between wildlife interests and human interests poses the real obstacle to coexistence. “While politically connected groups like ranchers and hunters mostly oppose wolves, there are also many people who are in favor of them,” Jim points out. But laws regulating other wild animals also pose problems, as wolves are “accidentally” shot by hunters “mistaking” a wolf for a coyote (as claimed about a wolf killed in Utah, believed to be “Echo,” the first wolf in the Grand Canyon in 70 years). This is a convenient excuse given by poachers as well, as there is, shockingly, no bag limit or seasonal limit on coyote kills.
Drawing upon the research of experts who spent decades studying wolves in the field, In Wolf Country cuts against simple polarization. It combines the dramatic stories of individual wolves like B-45 and OR-7 with larger studies of wolf populations. Seeing wolves as both individuals and part of larger groups is crucial. If wolves are going to disperse successfully, our culture must adapt. As Jim writes, “wolves are here to stay, despite the continuing opposition of some people and their willingness to kill them, legally or otherwise….”