Wolves began naturally dispersing into Montana from Canada in the late 1970s. In 1995 and 1996, 66 wolves were released by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Since then, wolves have expanded in range and number. Their populations appear to have stabilized in areas like Yellowstone.
Before transferring management from the federal government to the state governments, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are required to demonstrate that their management plans will ensure that wolves are not again put at risk of extinction in the region. Unfortunately, instead of coming up with responsible, science-based plans, politics ruled the day in Wyoming and Idaho. In contrast, Montana used a panel of local citizens to come up with a far more sustainable plan for wolves that tried to balance wolf recovery with the concerns of the general public and other stakeholders. Since that time, wolves were removed from, then returned to, the Endangered Species List. Wolves were relisted primarily because of Wyoming’s shoot-on-sight policy in 88% of the state.
On May 5, 2011, following the passage of a delisting rider attached to a budget bill by Congress, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reissued the 2009 delisting rule for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. The rule officially removes Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in Idaho, Montana, eastern Oregon and Washington, and the northeast corner of Utah. Wolves remain protected by the Endangered Species Act in Wyoming, which has yet to develop a responsible, science-based wolf management plan.
In spite of the adverse manner by which wolves were removed from protection of the Endangered Species Act, we should not lose sight of the fact that the return of the wolf to the Northern Rockies is a remarkable achievement in wildlife conservation and for the Endangered Species Act itself.
Politicians have insisted that western states can responsibly and sustainably manage wolves. Now the states will be put to the test. The Western Wolf Coalition and our member groups will be watching, and we will hold the states accountable to their commitment to conserve the gray wolf for future generations of Americans.
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More than 200,000 gray wolves (Canis lupus) once lived throughout the United States. Aggressive government-sponsored anti-predator campaigns led to the eradication of wolves from most of the lower 48 states by the 1930s. For nearly 50 years, the howl of the wolf was not heard in the lower 48 states, except for remote parts of Minnesota. Wolves were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1973. Consequently, when wolves began naturally dispersing from Canada into northwestern Montana in the late 1970s, they were protected under the Endangered Species Act. Natural dispersal soon led to a widespread call for restoration of native wolves, with the hope of returning natural balance to the Northern Rockies ecosystem. More than 100,000 people expressed their support for the release of wolves into central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the mid ’90s, both within the region and across the country.
Today, the Northern Rockies wolf population has grown to more than 1,650 animals—a success—but still well below the historic level of wolves in the region. Since reestablishing their presence on the landscape, wolves have begun to restore natural balance to our ecosystems by culling weak and diseased elk, deer and other prey. They’ve also dispersed large herds away from sensitive wetlands and meadows that have suffered from decades of over-browsing. Regionally, elk and deer populations remain healthy. In fact, they exceed state biologists’ target populations for optimal herd health in most regions in all three core states.
While the increased numbers of wolves have resulted in some livestock conflicts, conservation-concerned ranchers are learning to successfully prevent and dramatically reduce wolf predation to manageable levels. Conservation groups, such as Defenders of Wildlife, assist wildlife agencies and livestock owners with methods and tools to help reduce losses. Meanwhile, an influx of tourist dollars has accompanied the return of wolves to the Yellowstone region, where wolf-related tourism generates more than $35 million annually for local communities.
In short, people are learning to live with wolves across the Northern Rockies and to appreciate them as contributors to a healthy ecosystem, thriving recreation economy, and rewarding way of life.