Wolf Conservation photo
Wolf Conservation photo


Field Editor Keith McCafferty (left) has lived in Montana for 30 years. He’s written scores of stories about big game hunting in the West, including a blockbuster report about Idaho’s first wolf season that Field & Stream published in March of this year.

Many hunters have expressed shock and dismay at a federal court ruling last Thursday that returns Rocky Mountain wolves to the protection of the Endangered Species List, effectively cancelling scheduled wolf hunts this fall in Idaho and Montana. They believe reinstatement will result in further decimation of elk herds and reduced hunting opportunities, and in some regions there is mounting scientific evidence that this will prove true. But the decision handed down by US District Court Judge Donald Molloy shouldn’t come as a surprise, nor should hunters feel that they are powerless in its wake.

Last September, when Molloy turned down the request of a coalition of environmental groups to stop proposed hunting seasons on the basis that hunting would do the species “irreparable harm,” he cleared the way for the lower 48’s first legal wolf hunts since their reintroduction to the Rockies in the mid-1990s. What hunters tend to forget is that at the time Molloy also stated that the US Fish and Wildlife Service was likely to lose its case for sport hunting on the larger question of whether wolves had been properly removed from the Endangered Species List. In other words, hunters had won the battle, but were likely to lose the war. When wolves were delisted in the spring of 2009, the USFWS had argued that hunting for wolves should be permitted for a portion of a “distinct population segment” in the northern Rocky Mountains, specifically in states that had proposed management programs that met federal recovery goals for the species. Idaho and Montana submitted acceptable management programs and were awarded hunts in the fall of 2009. Wyoming did not — their management program lists wolves as a predator that can be trapped or killed on sight throughout most of the state — and as a result wolves were not delisted there. Wyoming was denied a 2009 hunting season.

One problem with the USFWS proposal was that the same agency had previously declared that a distinct population segment of wolves couldn’t be split up, an apparent contradiction that Molloy referenced in his ruling last week. Simply decoded, Molloy’s decision is that the ESA does not allow the USFWS to list only part of species as endangered. If the species is endangered in one part of its range — Wyoming — then it must be listed throughout its range. Management cannot be divided upon political boundaries.

What does this mean with regard to the future of wolves and elk hunting in the West? Most important, relisting removes an important management tool — hunting — from the slim arsenal of weapons with which states can combat surging wolf populations, which in the tri-state area is estimated to near 2,000 by the end of 2010. Wolves that kill livestock can still be managed in a joint cooperation between the states and Wildlife Services, which is good news for elk that share ranges that overlap with cattle grazing. But in backcountry areas where wolves seldom come into conflicts with livestock — in western Idaho, for example — state game department will again have their hands tied, and as a result, elk herds will continue to decline in some regions.

Relisting wolves has prompted game departments to look at measures other than sport hunting to control the damage. Specifically, Idaho and Montana officials have said they will look closely at the 10J rule of the Endangered Species Act, which grants states some flexibility to control wolves if they are shown to significantly reduce game herds below management objectives. The problem is that the burden of proof falls to the state and prior efforts to control wolves under 10J have failed. Large scale radio-collar studies to document declines and isolate the culprit are expensive and impractical throughout most of the Rockies. Perhaps the only regions where sufficient evidence already exists are the famed Lolo district in Idaho and the Upper Gallatin Canyon in Montana. Documenting declines in other regions will take time, time that elk may not have. State officials are also exploring other options, including appealing Molloy’s decision, as well as legal maneuvering that opens the door for a hunting season even with wolves on the ESL. Meanwhile, Wyoming is suing the federal government for not accepting their so-called management program, a case of impotent posturing in the extreme.

None of these measures are likely to bear fruit in the near future.

The reality is that wolf hunting is over for this year and future efforts to delist the species will undoubtedly meet stiff opposition in court. Critics of Molloy — and they are legion among hunters — point out that even if Wyoming comes on board with an acceptable wolf management program, wolves are gradually expanding into adjoining states, including Oregon, Washington, Utah and Colorado (where there is still a bounty on wolves on the books). There will always be places where the species hasn’t met recovery goals or where management programs are lacking, giving wolf proponents legal grist for lawsuits to ban hunting even where the predators flourish.

In the face of what they perceive as a stacked deck — an accurate assessment in my opinion — many hunters are talking about taking measures into their own hands. The policy they propose to resurrect is “Shoot, Shovel and Shut Up,” or SSS as they bandy the term about on Internet hunting forums. As one thread responder wrote last week, “At what point do we stop doing the legal thing and start doing the RIGHT thing?” Another put his policy more succinctly: “BANG! BANG! BANG! RELOAD, BANG! BANG! BANG!”

Really? Undoubtedly, some hunters will shoot wolves on sight this fall, as they have since their reintroduction. But the vast majority of us take pride in being law-abiding citizens. It is one thing to vent frustration in Internet chatrooms or over a beer in a bar. It is another to pull the trigger and break a federal law. And what difference would it make, anyway? Remember: Last year, 26,000 licensed Idaho wolf hunters couldn’t meet the quota for wolves in the mountainous backcountry area where they were inflicting the most damage on elk herds. And that with an extended season that stretched from September through March.

So, is there anything we can do to work toward delisting wolves, reinstating hunting seasons for them, and helping elk — and not incidentally our own prospects for filling elk tags — in the future? There is, but only if we accept the fact that wolves are here to stay, and that they are a natural part of the ecosystem and have as much right to live in the country where they evolved as any other animal. This is something that the state of Wyoming has stubbornly failed to do. Many hunters have criticized Molloy for basing his decision to relist wolves on a technicality — namely, that the ESA cannot be applied on a state by state basis. But that’s what laws are composed of, legal technicalities. Molloy, a Clinton appointee, is not the wolf lover and evil puppet of the liberal left that his critics suggest. He is a westerner and his recent decision admitted that delisting wolves could be a “pragmatic solution to a difficult biological issue.” His reservation, backed by historical interpretation of the law, was that delisting on a state by state basis was illegal. Had Wyoming proposed a management program similar to those of Montana and Idaho, he might well have ruled differently. Remember, this is the same judge who rejected arguments by pro wolf organizations last year and allowed hunting to go forward.

If you want to hunt wolves again, or hunt elk in country where they are abundant, bring pressure to bear on Wyoming. Write to Wyoming’s governor, state game officials and congressmen and let them know that you, as a hunter, want them to write a wolf management program that satisfies federal guidelines. Better yet, get your local hunting club to do so. Money is what talks. Tell them you won’t hunt in their state until they comply.

I’ll be the first to admit that there’s no guarantee that Wyoming’s cooperation will lead to a reversal in Molloy’s position in future lawsuits. But one thing’s for certain. As long as the politicians of Wyoming stick to their guns by insisting that wolves are a non-game species to be shot on sight in most areas, they are not only disarming potential wolf hunters throughout the Rockies, but hurting all of our chances of filling the freezer with elk. – Keith McCafferty