There are few topics as controversial as the wolf and its reintroduction into the wild. Since its eradication in 1926, when the last of the gray wolves were killed in the Yellowstone area, decades of debate, environmental impact studies, research, and planning followed, leading to reintroducing wolves into the wild in 1995, and that wasn’t the end of the controversy. Outdoors people like me even vary on our opinions about the wolf, as do ranchers, outfitters, wildlife protection groups, and wildlife biologists. It’s amazing how much of an impact a single species can have on our country. What is even more amazing is the wolf’s impact on the environment, which is what lead to the reintroduction efforts in the first place.
When the wolves were removed from the ecosystem in Yellowstone, the elk herds exploded, to the point that they were over browsing the landscape, causing trees to disappear over time, which caused rivers to change their channels, which impacted fish populations. And the animals, insects, and birds that relied on those trees lost their habit, and soon they were gone. Along creek beds willows and cotton wood trees began to grow taller to escape predation from the elk, but often times it was too late, the trees were mostly decimated. The elk were also eating themselves out of habitat, they were overcrowded, disease became a problem, and the herds were unhealthy. I could go on for several paragraphs describing the impacts of removing wolves from the food chain, but I think you get the point.
In researching this topic I found most of my information from the final Environmental Impact Statement, done by the US Department of Interior and the US Fish & Wildlife Agency, which was 414 pages long, with a table of contents that was 21 pages. This document revealed extensive research into almost any imaginable impact of reintroducing wolves, even referencing a treaty with the Nez Perce Indian tribe from 1855. The document also defined that states would be responsible for managing the wolves after the reintroduction. The document was exhaustive in every way, from studies on impacts to hunting, ranching, other animal species, plants, and on and on. My point is that after 30 years of research and planning, a very solid case was made to reintroduce the wolves in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. The full reintroduction would later include Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and New Mexico.
Now, 19 years later, the wolf reintroduction program has been deemed a tremendous success:
- Elk herds have been reduced and are healthier.
- Not only have the elk and deer herds been reduced, they are also changing their behavior, resulting in a stronger environment to support other wildlife.
- Beaver populations have increased, resulting in habitat for fish and waterfowl.
- Riparian areas have recovered with the growth of aspen, cottonwoods, and willows.
- Coyote populations have decreased, resulting in an increase of smaller animals, which results in more food for raptors and other predators such as foxes.
The list goes on of the benefits of the wolf reintroduction, but the controversy is not over. The wolf populations have far exceeded the targets of the original reintroduction plan, and the original plan had called for individual state wildlife agencies to manage the wolf populations. As you know, wildlife populations are controlled by habitat management and hunting, and this is where the latest debate exists. Control for some states to manage the wolf populations have been put on hold by multiple lawsuits from environmental agencies and animal activist groups.
I am a firm believer in wildlife management, and I trust that our state wildlife biologists know how much wildlife a habitat can maintain, taking into consideration all of the living things in that habitat. It is a science that I find very interesting, and a science that I believe most animal rights activists know nothing about. My opinion is to leave the management of all wildlife up to the states, and why would we treat wolves any differently?
While I have no desire to hunt a wolf with a gun, I would love to hunt one with a camera. I will only kill something that I will eat, and I don’t want to eat a wolf. But getting close enough to a wild wolf to take a picture is the same as hunting them; the only difference is that you take a picture instead of sending a bullet when you press your finger. But as a hunter of elk, deer, and grouse, a fisherman, and an outdoor enthusiast, I want the wilderness to be maintained by people who know what they are doing, not by people who have a problem with someone killing a wolf.
The wolf reintroduction program has far exceeded the initial goals set back in 1995, and I think that is great! But if we don’t manage the wolf population just like any other animal, we are going to create an imbalance that is going to swing the pendulum in the opposite direction. Unfortunately we don’t live in a wild nation; we haven’t for over 200 years. Yet because of wildlife management our game populations are far more than they were 100 years ago, despite the explosion of the human population and the urbanization of our land.
Whether you like the idea of wolves being killed or not, think about the big picture of their impact to the ecosystem. Think about their ability to completely affect the environment around them. Wolves are majestic animals, just like elk or deer or bison, so we have to manage them in the same way we manage all of our natural resources.