The unexpectedly strong comeback of the wolf in the northern Rockies has created a great snarling and gnashing of teeth, but it's not the sound of the mighty predators bringing down elk or the occasional cow.
It's the wrangling over what to do now that wolves have re-established themselves.
Since the gray wolf was reintroduced to Wyoming and Idaho in 1995 — eight years after it was brought back to northwestern Montana — the population has grown twice as fast as anyone believed possible. Last summer the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided that the process of removing the wolf from the endangered species list could begin, once the three states came up with acceptable management plans to control the population.
Both Idaho and Montana drew up plans that were approved by the FWS, but Wyoming's plan was rejected. State law classifies the wolf as a predator, meaning wolves could be killed on sight anywhere in Wyoming outside of Yellowstone National Park and the adjoining wilderness area.
The state has announced it is suing the federal government over the rejection, but for federal wildlife officials, the proposal remains unacceptable.
"It would be legal [under Wyoming's proposed plan] to have me get in a helicopter, search out wolf packs, kill them all, then search out the cubs in their dens and kill them," said Ed Bangs, coordinator of the FWS gray wolf recovery program.
The state, though, says the wolf deserves to retain its predator status, because the rising population has caused "severe damage" to other wildlife species, such as elk, deer, buffalo, bighorn sheep and antelope, as well as to livestock, according to the letter from Gov. Dave Freudenthal and Attorney General Patrick Crank to officials at the U.S. Department of the Interior announcing the intention to file suit.
To ranchers, the designation of predator fits the wolf.
"I do not believe that livestock and wolves can coexist," said Albert Sommers, a rancher and president of the Upper Green River Cattleman's Association. "Every time a wolf pack has come into contact with livestock, they depredate livestock. It's nothing against wolves, it's just that cattle or sheep are slower than deer or elk or other game."
The claims of "severe damage" to the elk population are at odds with what federal and state wildlife officials say has occurred, but it isn't surprising that there should be such differences of opinion about the effect of the wolf's return. Throughout history and around the world, wolves seem to have always evoked strong emotions, either for or against.
In mythology and folklore, wolves have appeared either as forces for good — raising orphaned human children or aiding humans in seemingly impossible quests — or as the embodiment of evil.
That kind of sharp split holds for too many people, biologists say.
"The whole wolf issue has nothing to do with reality, it has everything to do with symbols," Bangs said. "If you're a big cycle person and believe that everything works together, you tend to like wolves. If you believe people are on top of everything, you tend not to like wolves."
Sommers said that doesn't reflect his thinking. He doesn't think wolves are evil, it's just that they kill his livestock.
"A wolf is a wolf, it's not a sinister animal," he said. "It just does what it does."
'A Keystone Predator'
There is no doubt, though, that wolves have had a broad effect on the ecology of the northern Rockies, some of it unexpected.
Elk populations have declined, but Reg Rothwell, supervisor of biological services for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said that the growing populations of grizzly and black bears and mountain lions, as well as drought conditions in recent years, could be as much to blame as wolves.
In any case, that was expected. Wolves hunt elk, and do it quite well, Bangs said.
But the ripple effect extends far beyond the elk.
For one thing, elk had to change their way of eating and that has affected not only plant life, but erosion patterns. Before the reintroduction of the wolf, elk in Yellowstone munched peacefully on saplings along river banks, killing the young willow, cottonwood and aspen before they could mature.
With wolves on the prowl, elk realized they could not safely eat along the banks of the winding rivers where they could not see a long way.
As a result, trees are growing in those areas for the first time in 70 years, and that has provided habitat for songbirds and encouraged a resurgence in the beaver population in the park.
Wolves, by regularly killing elk and deer and leaving the remains when they have eaten their fill, provide food for a host of animals such as lynx, bald eagles, golden eagles and others from grizzly bears to dung beetles that feast on carcasses.
"If you're a scavenger, wolves are the best thing since sliced bread," Bangs said.
On the other hand, as the wolves have thrived, coyote numbers have dropped. That has allowed the fox to flourish, which has not been good for ground nesting birds, a prime source of food for foxes.
But with fewer coyotes, there is less pressure on pronghorn antelopes, and their numbers have risen.
"Wolves serve a function in those biological communities where they live," said Nina Fascione, vice president for species at Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group that was instrumental in bringing wolves back to the northern Rockies. "They are a keystone predator who have an effect beyond the immediate animals they prey on."
Who Should Manage Wolves?
The argument over wolves has focused on their effect on big game animals such as deer and elk, and on livestock, and dispute over the extent of that effect and what to do about it is what has divided hunters and ranchers from the biologists, especially in Wyoming.
Bangs and Mike Jimenez, the FWS head wolf biologist for Wyoming, both said they believe the job of managing wolves should be the states', because they have more staff to deal with the situation and likely have a close relationship with ranchers and others affected by the wolves.
Ranchers' losses to predators have increased since wolves were brought back. For instance, Sommers said his annual calf losses to predators rose from less than 1.6 percent in 1990-94 to 3.6 percent annually in 1995-99 as the grizzly bear population grew and the reintroduced wolf gained a foothold, and then to 5.2 percent annually 2000-02 as wolf numbers grew rapidly.
The FWS also tracks losses and releases both annual and monthly reports on the interaction between wolves and humans. According to FWS figures, a total of three cattle and no sheep were killed by wolves in the northern Rockies in 1995. In 2003, according to FWS figures, 64 cattle and 211 sheep were killed.
Some of those losses have been compensated by payments totaling $300,000 to ranchers from the Bailey Wildlife Foundation Wolf Compensation Trust, administered by Defenders of Wildlife. The fund pays not only for livestock, but also for guard dogs or work animals lost to wolves.
What Killed What?
Sommers said the compensation is more public relations for the wolf supporters than real help to ranchers, because so few of the livestock killed by wolves can ever be confirmed. He pointed to a state study done in Idaho that found that for every calf confirmed killed by wolves, another six wolf kills would go unconfirmed.
"It's not always clear what killed what," he said. "The forensics get a little iffy and a lot of the carcasses get all ate up and you don't have any idea what did it."
The U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, a nationwide group of hunters and people who fish based in Columbus, Ohio, took no stand on the decision to reintroduce the wolf because it is not a game species, but Rob Sexton, the group's vice president for government affairs, said hunters are concerned about the effect the wolf has had on the elk population.
"People see far less elk than they used to, and that has to have an effect on tourism in Yellowstone because people go to see elk," he said. "Hunters are saying the same thing. They're saying they see a heck of a lot less calves."
The ratio of elk calves to cows is one of the triggers that would allow either relocation or hunting of wolves, according to the management plans drawn up by Montana and Idaho.
"It is our perception that the delisting of the wolf is a long time coming," Sexton said. "They've been set up separately from the way that we normally manage wildlife."
At Defenders of Wildlife, the feeling is that separation ought to continue a while longer.
"Wolves are clearly doing better now in the northern Rockies and they are clearly on the way to being recovered, but in our opinion it is not yet time for them to be down-listed," Fascione said.
Bangs noted that there is a little irony in the FWS being responsible for bringing the wolf back to the United States and ensuring its survival, since he said it was the FWS that was largely responsible for hunting the wolf to extinction everywhere in the contiguous 48 states except northern Minnesota 70 years ago.
But somebody needs to protect wolves, he said.
"They do everything magnificently in their lives except avoid getting killed by humans," he said.