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Wolves: The hopes and dangers ahead

A species has come back a long way. But are political forces gunning to stop the gains before wolf populations reach a sustainable level?

If a Washington gray wolf were really alpha, he might spend less time chasing elk and more time reading maps: West of Highway 97, which runs near Omak, Wenatchee and Yakima as it goes from Canada to the Oregon border, he's protected by the federal Endangered Species Act. Anyone who shoots him could be prosecuted by the feds. East of Highway 97, he's protected by the state; anyone who shoots him could be prosecuted under state law.

Beyond the Idaho border, he's not protected at all: Anyone who can pony up $12.75 for a license and $11.50 per tag is welcome to shoot him and up to four of his best friends.

The federal protection he still enjoys on the west side of Highway 97 may soon disappear. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed delisting gray wolves; if the agency decides to go ahead, that Endangered Species Act protection will disappear.

Even some of gray wolves' two-legged supporters, including (nominally or actually, depending on your point of view) the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, think that an end to federal listing is appropriate.

Copyright: Google Maps (Interactive version here)

At the same time, in much of the West, the politics of wolf protection — or wolf slaughter, depending on your point of view — remain contentious.

To understand where the wolf is today, it's important to recap. Gray wolves were hunted (and trapped and poisoned) basically to extinction throughout the West. By the middle of the last century, they were gone from Washington, from the northern Rockies, from Yellowstone National Park. They joined the federal endangered species list at the beginning of 1974, only months after Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. The state of Washington listed them six years later.

Times changed. In 1995, the federal government introduced Canadian wolves into Yellowstone. The wolves have thrived there, forming packs, raising pups, wandering beyond the park boundaries, where they are sometimes shot. A little later, wolves from Canada recolonized other Western states on their own, walking down across the border into Washington, Idaho and Montana, making their way into Oregon and Wyoming, too. Some wolves from British Columbia have walked south into Washington, while Alberta wolves that crossed the border farther east have come in from Idaho.

Washington's first confirmed breeding wolf pair appeared in the upper Methow Valley in 2008.

With the recovery underway, some western sheep and cattle ranchers feared the losses wolves might cause. Some hunters worried that the animals would devastate elk herds, or at least make the elk act like wild animals. Other hunters just wanted opportunities to kill wolves. Red-state politicians didn't want the federal government telling states how to manage wolves or anything else. As wolf populations grew, so did the political pressure to delist wolves so that both ranchers and hunters could get Canis lupus in their rifle sights.

The George W. Bush administration tried twice to oblige by removing endangered species protection. The first time, conservation groups got a court to enjoin the delisting, and the feds asked for a voluntary remand. The second time, a federal judge ruled that the delisting — which covered most but not all of the northern Rockies — violated the Endangered Species Act. The government appealed to the 9th Circuit.

In 2011, before the 9th Circuit had a chance to consider the issue, western Congressmen managed to take delisting away from the courts. For the first time ever, Congress — rather than the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service — took a species off the endangered list. In a rider to an eleventh-hour bipartisan budget deal, Congress delisted wolves in the northern Rockies, including Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and eastern Washington and Oregon.

Wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are now being hunted aggressively. At the end of last year, the state of Idaho sent a hunter and trapper into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness — the largest federal wilderness area in the Lower 48 — to kill wolves so that there would be more elk for hunters. Conservation groups sued. They lost in federal district court, appealed to the 9th Circuit, and asked for an injunction. Before they could get it, the state stopped the wolf eradication project. But by then the state's trapper had killed nine wolves.


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