Idaho and Montana fish and game agencies are scrambling to figure out how to manage their wolf populations after a federal judge decided wolves in both states should be put back on the endangered species list. The ruling, which came earlier this month, killed planned wolf hunts in both states. But the story doesn’t end here, some people are still working to legalize wolf hunts and future cases are on the way. It’s time to meet the main players in this never-ending debate and decide whose side you’re on. Editor’s Note: Some of the photos in this gallery show wolves killing and eating game animals, please read on at your own discretion. Photo: Daniel Stahler National Park Service
Environmentalists After wolves were delisted in Montana and Idaho, an alliance of 13 environmentalist organizations sued the federal government to get wolves back on the endangered species list. They argued that it is illegal for a species to be federally protected in one area of its range and not another.
The environmentalists ended up wining this case. “This decision is a significant victory for wolves, for the integrity of the Endangered Species Act, and for all Americans who care deeply about conservation,” said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the main environmental groups that brought the lawsuit. “The court’s ruling makes it clear that decisions under the Endangered Species Act should be based on science, not politics.”
Environmental groups also sued in 2009 when wolves were originally taken off the endangered species list, arguing that a hunt would do too much damage to the population and even cause elimination. But they lost this suit and two wolf hunts were allowed. Photo: National Park Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife This is a federal government agency that is under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Interior. It delisted wolves in Montana and Idaho and paved the way for the 2009 wolf hunts, which were the first wolf hunts in the lower 48 states in decades.
The agency however did not take wolves off of the endangered species list in Wyoming, citing the fact that the state did not have a proper management plan in place for a wolf hunt. Photo: Chris Muiden
U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy Earlier this month Donald Molloy ruled on the side of the environmentalists finding that the government’s attempt to treat wolves in Montana and Idaho differently than in neighboring Wyoming, was not legal under the Endangered Species Act.
Molloy said allowing wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho while they were federally protected in Wyoming would be like “saying an orange is an orange only when it is hanging on a tree.” Photo: Daniel Stahler National Park Service
Molloy has drawn heavy criticism from the hunting community, but he originally ruled on the side of hunters when he O.K.’d the 2009 wolf hunt. The difference this time around was not whether a wolf hunt was the right thing to do from a conservation standpoint, but rather the legality of a wolf hunt while wolves are still protected under the Endangered Species List in Wyoming.
Idaho Wolves were reintroduced in Idaho in 1995 and there population has steadily increased ever since. By the time the sun set on the 2009 wolf hunt, there were approximately 835 wolves and 49 breeding packs in the state. Wildlife officials expect that number to go up considerably this year without a hunt. Photo: Idaho Fish and Game
Last year 185 wolves were killed during the hunt and Idaho had plans to increase it wolf quota this year. Photo: Jim Peaco National Park Service
But now that those plans are spoiled, Idaho game officials are worried about wolves decimating elk herds. The Lolo elk zone in northern Idaho is a special concern, since game officials were hoping that hunters would kill 80 wolves in the area. It will now most likely be up to game officials to trap and kill those wolves.
“The department is disappointed with this decision. We’re sorry that the same stewardship that we provide to all the other wildlife in Idaho we won’t be able to extend to wolves at this time. Sometime in the future we hope that can occur again,” Jim Unsworth deputy director of Idaho fish and game said of the ruling that canceled the wolf hunt. Photo: National Park Service
But the Gem state hasn’t turned it’s back on a public wolf hunt yet. The game commission is trying every option including attempting to get the wolf downgraded on the Endangered Species list, appealing the federal judge’s ruling and applying for a special federal permit to hunt wolves even though they are endangered. Photo: National Park Service
Montana There are about 525 wolves in Montana, consisting of 100 packs and 34 breeding pairs. During its wolf hunt last year Montana hunters killed 73 wolves. Before the ruling this year, game officials decided to bump up the wolf quota to 186.
“If we understand the ruling correctly, Judge Molloy is telling the federal government that because Wyoming still doesn’t have adequate regulatory mechanisms to manage wolves, you can’t delist the wolf in Montana and Idaho.” Said Joe Maurier director of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. “We simply can’t manage wildlife successfully in that environment. We must have the ability to manage wildlife, to do our job, to seek a balance among predator and prey. As a practical matter, as wildlife managers, we need the authority to respond to the challenges wolves present every day.” Photo: National Park Service
Like Idaho, Montana is now working to reinstate a wolf hunt and figure out effective ways to manage its wolf population, but it’s unlikely that any type of public wolf hunt will take place this year.
Wyoming Veterans of the wolf war understand that Wyoming is one of the main reasons this year’s wolf hunt was axed. Wyoming currently has wolves classified as a predator species not as a game species. This would allow for loosely regulated wolf hunting across all of Wyoming if wolves are ever delisted in the state.
Because of the way Wyoming had organized its wolf management program, the U.S. Fish and Wild Service kept wolves on the endangered species list there, denying the Cowboy state a wolf hunt (even though it delisted them in Montana and Wyoming). Wyoming sued the Fish and Wildlife service but lost. Photo: National Park Service
Out of the three main western states that wolves are repopulating, Wyoming has the fewest, with about 300 wolves.
Democratic Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal doesn’t plan on rewriting state wolf laws and steadfastly supports the current management plans. “No matter what the Fish and Wildlife Service does to move the bar, the science has remained constant. We have always believed, and at one time the Fish and Wildlife Service believed, that the best science available supports delisting as outlined in Wyoming state statute and carried forward in the state’s wolf management plan and regulations,” he says.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is equally determined and does not plan to not delist wolves in Wyoming until there is a new management plan. “The [Fish and Wildlife] Service’s decision to delist the wolf in Idaho and Montana reflected the strong commitments from the states of Idaho and Montana to manage gray wolves in a sustainable manner. Today’s ruling [to put wolves back on the list in Idaho and Montana] makes it clear this wolf population cannot be delisted until the state of Wyoming has instituted an adequate management program, similar to those of Idaho and Montana,” said Tom Strickland the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. Photo: Caninest
Ranchers Ranchers are a powerful player in the wolf war. They stand to lose thousands of dollars if wolves are not managed properly and are allowed to feast on livestock.
Hunters Unfortunately, hunters seem to be the most recent losers in the wolf war. Not only was their hunt taken away, but deer, elk and moose populations have been decimated in many regions.
The most recent warning comes from moose hunters in Idaho. Veteran hunters and outfitters are reporting significant declines in the moose numbers there. Outfitters are especially feeling the squeeze as they are selling less and less moose hunts. Most people blame wolves, and some hunters even claim to have seen more wolves than moose while in the backcountry. Photo: Michigan Tech University
Wolf Poachers A side effect of the federal court ruling is that a segment of the hunting and ranching community has vowed to kill wolves anyway. Whether you consider these people criminal poachers or vigilantes with good intentions, they are out there and they mean business. Photo: dallidee
In anticipation for an increase in illegal wolf killings, Idaho has requested that the federal government pay to enforce the game laws. The state argues that since it will have less funding through license sales (because of the canceled wolf hunt) the federal government should have to pick up the tab on wolf poaching. “We definitely feel with the current state of the status of the wolves, the federal government has an obligation to pay,” Idaho Fish and Game spokesman Ed Mitchell told, emphasizing that the department won’t turn a blind eye to illegal wolf killings either. “[Funding is] going to have to come from somewhere and the [state] determined that as long as we don’t have a funding source, i.e. tag sales, the funding should come from the federal government.” Photo: Dalliedee
What do you think, is shooting a wolf in the Idaho backcountry this fall acceptable, or does it make you a poacher? Comment below. Photo: Kristi Herbert