By JEFF WELSCH
A major new chapter is beginning in the Northern Rockies wolf saga. By summer, the gray wolf will again be taken off the endangered species list in Montana and Idaho, the result of Congress' attaching a rider to budget legislation directing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to remove protections in these two states and parts of Utah, Oregon and Washington. This decision returns daily management to Montana and Idaho, meaning a great deal of work lies ahead for the states' wildlife agencies and governors.
The battles over gray wolves have been among the most controversial in this region in years. The public, on both sides of the issue, is fully engaged. Since wolves were restored to the greater Yellowstone area and central Idaho's wilds 16 years ago, Montana and Idaho have insisted they can manage them. Now both will have the opportunity to show the nation they can ensure healthy, enduring populations for the long-term.
The Greater Yellowstone Coalition will closely monitor state management. We will work with agencies and local stakeholders to make sure wolves are managed like other wildlife. That includes fair-chase, regulated hunting as an important management tool. Likely starting this fall, hunters will be able to legally harvest wolves in the two states. If fair-chase hunting is conducted with a full component of sound science and public involvement, we believe wolves will continue to fill their ecological niche on the landscape in both states.
What has often been lost in the heated controversy over state vs. federal management is the fact that wolf recovery in the greater Yellowstone area and the Northern Rockies is an incredible success story—perhaps the most successful restoration of a species in America's 100-year effort to improve wildlife management. Twenty years ago, no wolves existed in the greater Yellowstone area. Today, almost 1,700 roam the Northern Rockies and ecological balance is being restored to our wildest landscapes through the presence of wolves.
Along the way, some communities near Yellowstone National Park have learned how to economically benefit. Studies show that wolf watchers add $35.5 million annually to their coffers from increased tourism. At the same time, wolves have had a negative impact on some ranching and farming families due to predation of livestock and pets. In some valleys, wolves also have contributed to changes in distribution and populations of elk and deer. This, in turn, has angered hunters who treasure the presence of large herds for sport and food.
Addressing these conflicts—which are real and important—will require the entire wildlife-management toolbox: research on populations, monitoring for the presence of wolves, reducing livestock conflicts using nonlethal techniques, fair-chase hunting and lethal control by wildlife managers responding to cattle and sheep predation. We believe wolves will be resilient and adaptable, even in the face of intervention by agencies to reduce numbers through hunting or lethal-control methods.
We have encouraged managing for 1,200-1,500 wolves across the Northern Rockies, and with delisting, the three states are committed to 1,100. We intend to hold them to that. If the total population does drop drastically below these levels, the Endangered Species Act will almost certainly be used to return numbers to a sustainable population. Most residents—including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and its members—don't want to see that happen again.
Jeff Welsch is communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, Mont.