On the 1st October 2012, wolves were delisted from the Endangered Species Act in Wyoming, making it legal to shoot the animals on sight in most areas of the state.
Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the nineties after the species had previously been made extinct by excessive hunting and trapping. Since then, the wolves have slowly continued to improve in numbers, and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service have decided to control their population by the legalization of hunting them. Wolves were delisted for about three months in 2008 and then placed back under protection. Wyoming is the last state in the Northern Rocky Mountains to delist wolves. The new rule is that the state must maintain at least 10 breeding pairs and 100 individual wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park and the Wind River Reservation. Currently there are around 270 wolves living outside this location.
The decision has been unpopular among animal rights groups, with Earthjustice, a non-profit law firm representing conservation groups, intending to sue the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. However, some of Wyoming’s natives welcome the change. It is commonly believed in Wyoming that the breed of wolf which was introduced to Yellowstone in 1990 was larger than the breed that previously existed there, and is therefore damaging the elk population by over-hunting to support their larger appetites. Although there is no scientific evidence to support this claim, the wolves have nevertheless been greeted by an unwelcome reception. There is a longstanding fear and hatred of wolves that exists; most likely stemming from the frustration farmers felt when wolves attacked their livestock.
Jim and Jamie Dutcher are the authors of ‘Living with Wolves’, a book which details the time they spent living with a pack of hand reared wolves and learning about their behaviour. The Dutchers aim to build tolerance between humans and wolves and correct common misconceptions about the animals. One misconception the Dutchers correct is the myth about the reintroduced wolves being different from the original species. A statement on their website reads, “The wolves that were brought from the Western United States from Canada were feeding on elk, mule deer, moose and other prey just like they are here. They are the same wolves that lived here before. The Northern Rockies ecosystem does not stop at the U.S – Canada boundary, and animals, neither prey, nor predator, stop and turn around at international borders.” Currently, there is worldwide media coverage of a wolf named OR-7 who is descended from the reintroduced pack. He has travelled 1000 miles across deserts, highways and mountains from his birthplace in Oregon, to California in search of a mate. There is currently a death warrant on his father and sibling for killing cattle, and his brother was illegally shot in Idaho. Luckily for OR-7, he is protected as a federally endangered species in California.
The hunters and farmers of Wyoming and the surrounding states are concerned about the effect wolves will have on the local wildlife and livestock if wolves overpopulate. An anti-wolf Facebook group has attracted debate over this topic. “Natural migration is a myth,” one person writes, “And the only way these wolves passed up hundreds, if not thousands of game animals to get to these areas was by motorized transport. They care nothing for wolves at all; all they care for is the end of hunting. The wolves will advance their entire agenda.” Many others are also unhappy about the effect wolves are having on hunting season. Hunting season begins in autumn every year, and means hunters who hunt for sport, sometimes known as trophy hunters, have the opportunity to hunt legally for a period of time. This activity is done to control the population of animals, and for recreational purposes. Hunting season attracts locals and tourists alike. One commenter on the Facebook site writes, “Hunting in an area that is inhabited by wolves is like competing with poachers that hunt 24/7, 365 days a year.” On the subject of sharing the land with wolves, another commenter writes, “The ‘world’ does not belong to us all…it belongs to Man, and it is Man’s duty to be good stewards of the land, to subdue it, and to utilize it to the best of our ability.”
The impact wolves have had on the environment has not all been negative, however. Since their reintroduction, the ecosystem has flourished. They have played a vital role in the continuity of healthy wildlife herds by preying on the old, weak and sick, picking out possible diseases and ensuring only the best genes survive. Without wolves to prey on them, elk over-ate vegetation in open places such as rivers and wetlands. They now spend more time in thick cover and are constantly on the move. This has helped the recovery of trees such as willow and aspen, which in turn provide food for beavers, who improve water quality with their dams. As well as benefits to the ecosystem, wolves have attracted an extra 150,000 new visitors to Yellowstone annually, adding $35 million to the economy every year.
Two wolves were killed on the day they were delisted from the Endangered Species Act, which was also the first day of the hunting season. At this early stage it remains to be seen whether the delisting of wolves will control or damage the population, however, it is clear to see man and wolf have a long way to go before they are living on the same land peacefully.