Letting Wolves Roam -- Or Not

ByTodd Wilkinson

D U L U T H,   Minn. -- Her name was B45-F, and since she crossed the Snake River a

year ago on a nomadic journey from Idaho into Oregon, the lone gray wolf

has raised a host of questions about the reintroduction of big predators.

At first, B45-F was a tooth-and-fur reminder of how successful wolfintroduction has been across the United States. Today, she’s representativeof a battle being fought nationwide over how far wolves should be allowed toroam.

Appropriately, the most decisive step yet on this issue will be taken inMinnesota — the state where wolves have made the most dramatic recovery.The state is expected to draw an invisible biological line in the sand,demarcating where the sometimes-popular, sometimes-reviled predators canbe shot when they are removed from the federal list of threatened species.

It’s a policy decision that has attracted no small amount of attention, with oneprominent scientist controversially suggesting farmers should be given greatleeway to shoot wolves. Moreover, the management plan for caretakingwolves will shape the direction of wolf recovery from the upper Midwest tothe desert Southwest and the Maine woods.

The recovery of wolves in the Land of 10,000 Lakes represents perhaps thefinest example of government conservation agencies pulling a large carnivoreback from the brink of extinction. In 1974, a year after the EndangeredSpecies Act was passed, Minnesota was forced to protect the last pocket ofwild wolves left in the Lower 48 states, a scattered population of only a fewhundred.

Now, researchers place the number at more than 2,400 — almost double whatscientists said would be necessary to delist the state population. Much of thesuccess is owed to a prohibition on wolf hunting, trapping and poisoning thatdecimated wolves elsewhere.

The recovery of wolves in Minnesota mirrors a trend of success in bringingwolves back to several regions.

A Shadow of Their Former Presence “We would be talking about maybe 10,000wolves being back in the landscape [in the Lower 48],” says Robert Ferris,vice president for species conservation at Defenders of Wildlife, adding “there were 200,000 wolves before we started monkeying around with thenatural systems.”

The debate over how to manage the newly resurgent population of Minnesotawolves, however, has been stirred by L. David Mech, a biologist with the U.S.Geological Survey’s Biological Resources Division, who is renowned as oneof the world’s wolf gurus. Ironically, Mech — a fierce wolfadvocate — argues that Minnesota must allow leniency for wolf killing in thestate’s farm country, lest citizens grow less tolerant of wolves.

What Mech is concerned about is a public backlash against wolves if societyisn’t prepared for headline-making encounters that are bound to occur. Heclaims that half of the wolves in Minnesota could be killed each year withoutit causing serious problems to the health of the population.

“The biggest lesson emerging from Minnesota for other areas in the West isthat zoning has to be part of the equation,” Mech says. “There must be areaswhere wolves will not be allowed to live.”

A Beef Over BeefAlthough livestock losses in the West have so far been less than expected,Mech predicts that they will increase threefold in Minnesota if wolfpopulations are not controlled. In addition, critics of wolf recovery programssay the animals are already causing problems in towns. For instance, wolvesallegedly snatched a cat off a front porch in Glenwood, N.M., they say,prompting parents to keep their kids indoors.

“You can’t force these wolves down the throats of people who see them as athreat,” says J. Zane Walley with the New Mexico-based ParagonFoundation, a property rights group.

In Minnesota, the fight between farmers and conservationists continues tomold the direction of the wolf management program. The Minnesota StateCattlemen’s Association has threatened to sue if it deems the state’s latestplan too restrictive. Conversely, if the state opens the door to liberal hunting,trapping and killing, the Sierra Club may take legal action to stall delisting.

For the most part, though, the move to save wolves nationwide has beenseen as a success. “Wolf reintroduction is a powerful demonstration of thisnation’s commitment to protecting and restoring endangered species, ”saysInterior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

Here to StayThe federal government’s wolf reintroduction efforts in the West were given aresounding affirmation two weeks ago when the 10th Circuit Court rejected alegal attempt brought by the American Farm Bureau Federation to haveYellowstone’s wolves rounded up and removed from the park.

With at least 116 wolves in Yellowstone, 145 in central Idaho and 64 innorthwest Montana, momentum is building to downgrade their status.According to officials inside U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency maydelist gray wolf populations in all the lower 48 states — not just Minnesota —soon after the Minnesota plan is released.

Wildlife experts say it is highly probable that wolves in the northern Rockiescould eventually disperse into northern California, Utah, Nevada, Oregonand Washington — just as B45-F did before she was trapped and returned toIdaho.

For now, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says any wolves that disperse fromtheir original recovery zones will be given latitude as long as they don’t preyon livestock, eat pets or stake out territories on the edge of towns.