Special Report

Wolves on the Loose

They were supposed to remain inside Yellowstone -- but rather than settle for life as a tourist attraction they now roam the Pacific Northwest preying on cattle and sheep and enjoying all the protections afforded them by the Endangered Species Act.

By 3.4.02

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Despite local misgivings Gray wolves (Canis Lupus) were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies in 1995 as an "experimental" population. That is, individual wolves could be removed if troublesome, and even shot by a rancher if they were caught preying on livestock. Thirty Canadian wolves were released in Yellowstone National Park, and another thirty in wilderness areas of central Idaho. There is a much reprinted picture of then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt assisting federal wildlife biologists in carrying a caged wolf from a truck to a Yellowstone holding pen, this photo op reflecting the Clinton administration's enthusiasm for the project.

From the Green point of view the reintroduction was a breeding success story. It is estimated that today 130 wolves roam Yellowstone and environs, with about an equal number in Idaho. The Yellowstone bunch are doing so well that packs are leaving the wolf-crowded Park and expanding their range into adjacent Montana and Wyoming, where they encounter the temptations of domestic livestock, particularly cattle and sheep. Stockgrowers have recorded hundreds of losses. This after they were told that the wolves would remain in Yellowstone (this was laughable in that there is no fence around the Park) thanks to the vast elk herds that would serve as their food source. The Idaho packs have also expanded into agricultural areas and beyond.

By beyond, I mean Oregon and Washington. In Oregon, there have lately been more than forty unconfirmed wolf sightings, a quarter of which are considered credible "good sightings," according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Bend. In Washington state a lone female has wandered the relatively short eighty miles from far northwestern Montana. These migrations are significant.

The experimental Yellowstone-Idaho reintroductions of 1995 came with strings attached. As noted, farmers and ranchers catching a wolf in the act of preying on livestock were permitted to shoot that wolf. Stockmen -- trying to make the best of a bad situation -- were reimbursed full market value for their losses by "Defenders of Wildlife," a national environmental group that had ingratiated itself into the program with the full support of the Clinton administration. "Defenders" has so far paid out a total of $206,000 to 180 ranchers in the northern Rockies. The group -- despite an altruistic public pose -- uses nonstop fundraising to buy off ranchers with the goal of ending livestock grazing on the public lands.

Now that wolves are wandering into the Pacific Northwest, they escape their experimental status and are afforded the full protection of the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA), essentially becoming bulletproof, yet with "Defenders of Wildlife" maintaining its role. Suzanne Laverty, Northwest representative for "Defenders," recently told the Associated Press that the arrival of wolves is "great news for wolves and wildlife supporters.…We welcome the day there will be some wolf claims in Oregon.…That will mean there are wolves in Oregon, and they belong there."

Northwest ranchers aren't so sanguine.

"Wolves and livestock can't coexist. Period," Sharon Beck, a rancher and past president of the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, told the AP. "Their [environmentalists] agenda is to get us off the public lands".

Brooks Fahy, executive director of the Predator Defense Institute in green Eugene, doesn't deny it: "Fifty percent of Oregon is prime wolf habitat…that has essentially been trampled.…The West is being treated like it was a giant feedlot.…We don't see any gray areas.…We want livestock off of public lands".

As for the Washington female, some would say she had a head start. She is an Alpha female (dominant and the only female in a pack to breed) that has participated in thirty-five sheep attacks in Montana's Madison Valley, and she is an alumnus of media mogul Ted Turner's halfway house for recidivist wolves that habitually attack livestock.

In the spring of 2000 Turner -- in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks -- had a large holding pen and related facilities built on his Flying D Ranch south of Bozeman, Montana. They've kept dozens of captured wolves there and have tried -- using Pavlovian behavioral methods -- to get them off the drug of attacking cattle and sheep. Turner also hired his own wildlife pointyheads to assist in this project.

A calf or lamb is placed in the pen, and as the wolves -- wearing electro-shock collars -- approach within a few feet, they receive a rude electric shock (PETA call your office!) that discourages further curiosity. Many wolves that went through this program (that plainly doesn't work) have been released back into the wild, where they have resumed their livestock depredations in nearby Paradise Valley. The Washington state female was part of a small pack relocated to the remote Yaak Valley of northwestern Montana, hard against the Canadian border and hundreds of miles from Turner's ranch. From there she made her lone eighty-mile migration to the Colville, Washington area: "To a wolf, that's like an afternoon walk," Ed Bangs, wolf recovery team leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the AP.

As "experimental" wolves expand their ranges in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, environmental groups are cynically using such tools as the Endangered Species Act to limit commercial activity on and access to public lands, and they have allies in the federal agencies. We have seen this recently in the infamous lynx study scandal involving the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and in the lately published report by the National Academy of Sciences on the erring of federal officials in cutting off irrigation water to protect three species of fish in last summer's Klamath Falls, Oregon "farmers vs. suckerfish" struggle.

That Ted Turner, "Defenders of Wildlife" and their ilk have ingratiated themselves into federally initiated but cash-strapped local wildlife programs by passing fat checks around does not bode well for stockgrowers in the West. The region's generation-old environmental debate is increasingly being influenced by whoever has the biggest bank accounts and hence the best lawyers. It behooves the Bush administration to officially end this era of Clintonian tyrannical malfeasance and corruption in the West, that allows for outside environmentalists to do their mischief with their own elitist interests in mind.

"We're not raising beef for wolves," says Sharon Beck. "We're raising it for profit."

And that, dear Mrs. Beck -- in the eyes of the West's enlightened elite -- is an unpardonable sin. It makes one wonder who the predators on the range really are.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.