Ranchers, Hunters & Activists Argue Over Wolves In Court

Ranchers, Hunters & Activists Argue Over Wolves In Court
Elk populations are being exploited at a high rate by predators, primarily wolves.

Ranchers, Hunters & Activists Argue Over Wolves In Court
Ranchers, Hunters & Activists Argue Over Wolves In Court
National Animal Interest Alliance
National Animal Interest Alliance

Montana / Idaho –-(AmmoLand.com)-On June 23, federal court Judge Donald W. Molloy heard arguments from opposing sides in the ongoing debate over federal protection of wolves in Montana and Idaho. Wolves in those states were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2009, leading several environmental and animal rights groups to sue to get them returned to federal oversight.

Judge Molloy sided with Montana and Idaho in September 2009, allowing a wolf hunt to go forward in those states. However, his decision included a comment that the US Fish & Wildlife Service may have overstepped its authority by delisting the wolves in those two states but maintaining federal protection in Wyoming.

This latest skirmish in the wolf narrative involves animals transplanted from Canada into central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming in he mid-1990s. In 2008, the US Fish and Wildlife Agency in the Bush Administration determined that the transplant was successful and the growing wolf populations in Montana and Idaho could be dropped from the Endangered Species List.

The Obama Administration affirmed that decision, and the wolves were removed from the list in 2009. Ranchers who have had cattle and sheep harassed and killed by wolves and conservationists who have noted a decline in elk herds back the decision to allow the two states to directly manage the expanding population of these top-level predators. Defenders of Wildlife and other environmental organizations dispute the evidence of elk herd decline, encourage ranchers to take measures to avoid conflicts between livestock and wolves, and claim that state control would endanger the experiment to reintroduce wolves to their former habitats.

The Saga
In 1995-1996, the US Interior Department Fish and Wildlife Service trapped 66 young wolves in the MacKenzie Valley in Canada’s Alberta Province and released them in central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in an effort to reintroduce gray wolves to these areas.

The goal?
Establish a total of 30 breeding pairs and 300 total wolves. The wolves were considered an experimental population, a category under the Endangered Species Act that allows the killing of individual animals that pose a danger to people, livestock, and pets. The project was successful beyond expectations: by 2007, the five dozen wolves had grown to more than 1000 wolves at the two sites, and the Yellowstone packs had spilled into surrounding areas in Montana and Wyoming. Livestock maiming and death increased, and the wolves began to have considerable impact on some elk herds.

By the end of 2009, the federal agency reported more than 1706 wolves in 242 packs and 115 breeding pairs, including breeding pairs in Oregon and Washington State.

This number did not include the wolves relocated or killed by the agency for preying on domestic livestock and pets. The wolves in the experimental population in Idaho and Montana were dropped from the ESA in May 2009 after the federal agency approved management plans by those two states. Wyoming’s plan was turned down, so wolves in that state are still under federal control.

Both Idaho and Montana have set hunting seasons for the animals, and Judge Molloy upheld those plans in September 20095.

Wolves vs Ranchers
Cattlemen and sheep farmers in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon have experienced livestock losses to wolves, but death of calves, lambs, and stock dogs is just part of the story. Ranchers are also facing significant losses as wolves stalk and panic livestock even when they do not attack and kill. State and federal laws do allow killing of wolves that prey on livestock, but suspecting and proving a wolf kill are often two different things. Even though Defenders of Wildlife and government agencies established compensation programs for livestock losses, applications are often turned down for lack of proof that the loss was due to wolf predation and payment for accepted cases is often too little, too late.

According to Idaho rancher Casey Anderson, proximity of wolves to cattle herds panic the livestock, cause weight loss and other problems, and reduce the number of weaned calves. Anderson took part in a two-year study funded by the Oregon Beef Council that tracked radio-collared wolves and cattle on his ranch. The study involved one wolf wearing a radio collar and 10 cows also wearing radio collars. The animals were tracked by GPS and recorded 784 contacts between the single wolf and the 10 cows.

Wolves killed more than 300 head of livestock in Montana alone in 2009, leading Senator Jon Tester to introduce a federal law to pump money into the state’s livestock compensation fund.

Wolves killed nine calves in Oregon in May, but they could not be removed until the sixth kill because the first five calves were killed on one ranch and state law requires that kills be verified on at least two adjacent ranches. Oregon is in the process of amending its wolf regulations, and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association has submitted suggestions for changes to allow ranchers to protect their stock.

Wolves vs Elk
Defenders of Wildlife was a prime influence in the wolf relocation project.

Although the group has paid some ranchers for losses attributed to wolf predation and says it does not oppose hunting hoofed animals, DOW firmly opposes delisting of the wolves in Montana and Idaho and claims that hunters exaggerate the wolf’s impact on the numbers of elk, deer, and moose in the wolf recovery areas.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation takes the opposite view. In its response to a letter from DOW, RMEF president and CEO M. David Allen accused the activist organization of “cherry-picking data” in its efforts to deny that wolves were contributing to a decline in some elk herds “Once again, I will state that elk are not flourishing where wolves are present,”

Allen wrote. “Contrary to what you have suggested many times, to claim otherwise is disingenuous and ‘cherry picking’ data. Elk populations are being exploited at a high rate by predators, primarily wolves and somewhat by grizzly bears. However, since the introduction of the Canadian gray wolf into Yellowstone this exploitation has become worse for elk numbers in the same areas. Yet, you would have the public believe otherwise.”

Defenders of Wildlife noted that elk herds have increased in size throughout their range, but RMEF countered that this general upswing does not tell the whole tale about elk herds and wolves. The RMEF letter contained specific data on the on elk decline in the northern Yellowstone, Gallatin Canyon, and Madison Firehole herds and in the Yellowstone moose herd – all areas where wolves are concentrated. It also cited low calf survival rates in those herds due in part to predation by wolves and grizzly bears and poor nutrition caused by changes in the animals’ grazing habits that developed to help the elk avoid predation.

Wolves and tapeworms
In addition to the concerns about wolf predation on elk, some people are worried about the growing presence of a tapeworm infestation that has increased in the Montana since the wolf reintroduction. In January this year, the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Division and the Idaho Fish & Game Department both issued fact sheets about the tapeworms to aid hunters and farmers to avoid infection.

The tiny tapeworm is known as Echinococcus granulosus, a species that uses canids as a definitive host and ungulates such as elk and sheep as intermediate hosts. E. granulosus is a zoonotic parasite; it can infect humans and cause echinococcosis, also known as hydatid disease or echinococcal disease. Although human infection is rare, spread of the parasite from the elk-wolf cycle to a dog-sheep cycle could increase human contact with the tapeworm eggs and potential infection. Signs of infestation can take years to show up, so the potential harm to humans is not known.

Wolves in the Great Lakes Region
Governments in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan have also sought to have wolves in the Great Lakes region of the US dropped from the Endangered Species List but have been thwarted by animal rights and environmental groups.

Unlike the reintroduced Rocky Mountain populations, wolves in this region came from Canada on their own and have successfully established a stable population. The wolves in this region were actually delisted in 2007, when the US FWS made the following statement:

“The region’s late winter gray wolf population now numbers approximately 4000 and occupies portions of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. Wolf numbers in the three states have exceeded the numerical recovery criteria established in the species’ recovery plan. “

“The Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources have developed plans to guide future wolf management actions. Protection of wolves, control of problem animals, consideration of hunting and trapping, as well as maintenance of the long-term health of the wolf population will be governed by the appropriate state or tribe.”

The 2007 decision was overturned on technical grounds following a lawsuit filed by the Humane Society of the US. A second attempt to delist the Great Lakes wolf population in 2009 was reversed by the agency in a settlement between the federal agency and a group of activist groups including HSUS. All three states have again petitioned the US FWS to delist the wolves and are awaiting an answer.

Wolves in Alaska
Wolves are not endangered or threatened in Alaska, and the state’s Department of Fish and Game allows hunting of the predators under its intensive management program to protect hoofed animals that are an important source of meat for residents. Aerial hunting of wolves by the state has been under attack by Defenders of Wildlife and other groups and as a result has see-sawed in and out of favor since the early 1990s.

The program is now in operation. However, a recent plan to kill seven wolves on the island of Unmiak in the Aleutian chain was halted by court order after the US Fish and Wildlife Service turned down a permit to kill the animals.The island is home to a small herd of caribou that sustains the population of resident natives.

The state determined that killing the wolves would decrease predation on caribou calves. However, Unmiak is part of the national refuge system under control of the federal government; the agency objected to the kill until they could complete a study to determine why the island caribou herd was shrinking.

Ranchers, Hunters & Activists Argue Over Wolves In Court
Ranchers, Hunters & Activists Argue Over Wolves In Court


  • On June 2, 2010, coalition of 13 environmental and animals rights groups filed a lawsuit against the delisting in Federal District Court in Missoula (9th Circuit). The Greater Yellowstone Coalition filed a separate lawsuit challenging the USFWS delisting criteria. The cases have been consolidated in the Missoula District Court under Judge Molloy, who previously allowed a wolf hunt to go forward in 2009 even while noting that the activists may ultimately prevail in the lawsuit. The complaint alleges the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population is not recovered and that the delisting violates the federal Endangered Species Act.
  • Letter dated April 8, 2010, from M. David Allen President & CEO, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to Mike Leahy, Director, Rocky Mountain Region, Defenders of Wildlife, and Kirk Robinson, PhD, JD Executive Director, Western Wildlife Conservancy; http://tinyurl.com/2374e28.
  • Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery 2009 Interagency Annual Report: A cooperative effort by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nez Perce Tribe, National Park Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Idaho Fish and Game, Blackfeet Nation,Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and USDA Wildlife Servicesy
  • The State of Wyoming, Park County, and the Wyoming Wolf Coalition filed a lawsuit in the 10th Circuit in Cheyenne, Wyoming, challenging USFWS rejection of Wyoming’s state wolf management plan.
  • “Hunt is on: Molloy says wolf season can continue in Idaho, Montana” by Rob Chaney, The Missoulian, September 9, 2009; http://tinyurl.com/ltcucf
  • “Wolves take toll on cattle during study: Livestock behavior changes as wolves move in to territory” by Lee Farren, Capital Press, May 27, 2010.
  • Letter dated March 30, 2010, from Mike Leahy, Director, Rocky Mountain Region, Defenders of Wildlife, and Kirk Robinson, PhD, JD Executive Director, Western Wildlife Conservancy; http://tinyurl.com/29w98rh.
  • Letter dated April 8, 2010, from M. David Allen President & CEO, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to Mike Leahy, Director, Rocky Mountain Region, Defenders of Wildlife, and Kirk Robinson, PhD, JD Executive Director, Western Wildlife Conservancy; http://tinyurl.com/2374e28.
  • “Great Lakes Wolf Management Issue Continues,” US Sportsmen’s Alliance, May

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