Yellowstone National Park wolves, which have brought balance to the park's ecosystem and tens of millions of dollars to its surrounding communities, could find themselves targeted by hunters if an amendment attached to the latest Continuing Resolution remains intact.
Such an outcome played out in October 2009 when the Cottonwood Creek Pack, which had a home base just inside the park's northern border, roamed north and onto Montana's Buffalo Plateau. While the pack's alpha female, a big black animal known as "527," might simply have been leading her 10-member pack in search of an easy meal from the gut piles elk hunters leave behind, that excursion coincided with Montana's first official wolf season in decades.
"The Cottonwoods were destroyed," Louisa Willcox, a senior wildlife advocate in the Natural Resource Defense Council's Montana office, recalled Tuesday. "There may have been a straggler or two and they went off in the wilderness and they were never heard from again, but for all intents and purposes that pack was wrecked by the hunt that occurred in Montana in the opening days of the hunting season.”
Yellowstone officials say at least four of the 10 wolves were killed that October, essentially disintegrating the pack.
So while the rider that U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, succeeded in attaching to the Continuing Resolution expected to come up for congressional approval Thursday doesn't allow hunting of wolves inside Yellowstone or Glacier national parks, it also doesn't protect any wolves that might roam outside the parks.
Though the National Rifle Association applauded the rider, it was picked apart by some others in Congress, as well by conservation groups that questioned the wisdom of using politics, not biology, to remove ESA protections from a species. Under the rider wolves in Montana, Idaho, and portions of Utah, Oregon and Washington state could be targeted during state-approved hunting seasons.
"Right now, Montana's wolf population is out of balance and this provision will get us back on the responsible path with state management," Sen. Tester said in explaining his amendment. "Wolves have recovered in the Northern Rockies. By untying the hands of Montana biologists who know how to keep the proper balance, we will restore healthy wildlife populations and we will protect livestock. This provision is best for our wildlife, our livestock, and for wolves themselves."
That argument, though, was not accepted by everyone.
“The American people want the Republicans to cut government pork, not pass indefensible riders that support the killing of endangered wolves,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.
At Earthjustice, a group that handles legal work for conservation groups in the West, President Trip Van Noppen shook his head at the efforts to inject politics into the ESA.
“President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid stood tall on protecting our Appalachian mountains from further damage by mountaintop removal coal mining operations and Americans from mercury-pumping cement kiln pollution, as well as soot and carbon dioxide emissions, yet House Speaker John Boehner and his Tea Party flank were relentless in pushing their anti-environment agenda and together with some Senate Democrats were able to keep an amendment in the budget bill that strips protections for America’s wildlife," he said.
“Wolves deserve protections just like every other species and it’s a tragedy that they’ve been thrown under the bus for political reasons. By law, lifting federal endangered species protections is supposed to be based solely on biology, not politicians enacting their political judgment. Let the wildlife experts do their jobs. Keep politics out of wildlife management."
But NRA officials said allowing the hunting of the predators was indeed wildlife management.
"With recovered populations of wolves across the Northwest, this provision sends an important message to anti-hunting extremists -- politics and legal wrangling are not welcome when it comes to conservation,” said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the rifle association's Institute for Legislative Action. “Hunters are the true conservationists and wolves simply need to be managed through regulated hunting like so many other species. The partial delisting is a good start and we will be focused on a more comprehensive solution moving forward.”
According to the NRA, moose, elk, and mule deer populations have been decimated in some areas where wolves are prevalent and the regulated hunting of wolves is long-overdue. The congressional "fix" included in the Continuing Resolution would reinstate the 2009 science-based delisting ruling by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the organization said.
But back at Earthjustice, Mr. Van Noppen maintained that "(A)lthough the immediate legislative threat is to wolves, the bigger threat is to all protected species, polar bears, grizzly bears, whales, and salmon among many. These animals are now vulnerable by the precedent of Congress substituting their political views for those of wildlife experts. This puts us on a path toward dismantling the Endangered Species Act by many individual attacks."
“Not only do we stand to lose protections for our gray wolves, but this budget bill now contains congressional language aimed at tying the hands of federal land managers overseeing some of America’s last great wild natural lands," he added. “The wolf provision has nothing to do with cutting our spending. This is not the budget bill Americans are looking for.”
“With Democrats like Tester, who needs Republicans?” added Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Jon Tester’s job creation agenda is concerned with only one job — his own. With the help of the White House and Senate leader Harry Reid, he has sacrificed wolves and the Endangered Species Act to cynical, self-interested politics.”
In the 38-year history of the Endangered Species Act, Congress has never intervened to override the law and remove a plant or animal from federal protection, according to the center.
“Tester’s rider is not only a disaster for wolf recovery, it opens the door for every self-interested politician to try to strip protection away from local endangered species,” Mr. Suckling continued. “It encourages weak-link Democrats to hold the entire party hostage to their local agendas.”
Back at her Livingston, Mont., office, Ms. Willcox said that if the rider remains intact Montana and Idaho officials should provide Yellowstone wolves a measure or two of protection by creating buffers around the park in which hunting would be banned.
"There should be concern about how (hunts) would affect the park populations because of how the states, especially Montana, and Idaho, too, configure the hunts around the park boundaries," she said. “And hopefully, they won’t duplicate the mistakes made when the hunts happened (in 2009) when park wolves, who had long pointy (spotting) scopes pointing at them for a very long time, suddenly had long pointy rifles pointing at them and were not ready for running away from people, because they were very habituated to people."
In Canada, Ms. Willcox noted, wildlife biologists in Ontario convinced provincial officials to draw such buffers around Algonquin Provincial Park to protect its wolves from hunters.
"What would make sense here is to do what Algonquin Park did in Canada, where there was a small park and wolves were getting continuously blown up if they got outside the park in Ontario and were shot," she said. "Some of the wolf experts in eastern Canada were able to argue to the provincial government that they should have a buffer zone around the park to basically protect the integrity of park packs, seeing that that is a very valuable thing, to have integral park packs that are not getting blown up repeatedly and destabilized.
“It would be wonderful to see if states were willing to work with the Park Service to develop a buffer zone that encompasses the territories, estimated territories, of how far wolves are roaming outside the park. That’s what should happen."
Another benefit for Yellowstone's wolves would be if Idaho and Montana officials also created buffers around the east-west running finger of landscape between the Centennial and Gravelly ranges that connects the park with central Idaho's wolf packs. Maintaining protection along that corridor would help the Yellowstone packs from running into genetic bottlenecks, Ms. Willcox said.
"There have been very, very few wolves that have made the trip from Idaho into Yellowstone and gotten stabilized within a pack structure and produced offspring," she said. "But in the long run, the genetics of Yellowstone wolves depend on having migration back and forth with Idaho. It would make sense to have buffer zones around the park and a no-hunt zone in the major connectivity areas that we know are important to wolves.”
Protecting Yellowstone's wolves from being impacted by hunting seasons in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming also would be good economics for towns surrounding the park. A study done in 2006 projected that tourists who come to the park to watch wolves spend $35 million a year on those trips.