Though states with wolves must have a federally approved wolf management plan, the federal government does not have one. Washington does have the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for ensuring that gray wolf recovery meets the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. Critics on both sides - those who want the wolf off the endangered species list and those who want the animal on it - criticize the agency. Litigation and legislation abound. Should we delist, downlist, or destroy wolves?
Two scientists have stepped away from the fray, studied the situation, and proposed an alternative to the mess we are mired in. John Vucetich, associate professor of wildlife ecology at Michigan Tech and co-director of the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose Study, and Jeremy T. Bruskotter, associate professor, School of Environment & Natural Resources at The Ohio State University have written "A Framework for Envisioning Gray Wolf Recovery." Their two-page proposal stuns me with its simplicity: the US Fish and Wildlife Service should develop a national wolf recovery plan that adheres to the ESA.
The scientists believe wolf recovery is feasible in the lower 48. "Wolves are one of the most adaptable mammals on the planet and can live where there is adequate food and where regulatory mechanisms limit the rate at which humans kill wolves." In short, if we don't shoot, trap, or poison them, wolves will recover.
They will recover best where fewer than 142 of us crowd each square kilometer. The proposal includes a map pinpointing localities too thick with humans. These high-density areas freckle the lower 48's eastern half. The western half has only eight such areas. In addition to showing where wolves should not live, the map reveals where they could live, even if reintroduction was necessary to place them there. Three recovery areas reside in the wide open west. One is in the very northeast corner of the US, above the congestion of the Boston-New York-Washington megalopolis.
Wherever wolves appear, some people will wail that the animals threaten humans. But the scientists say that wolves present less danger "than any number of animal species that Americans encounter on a daily basis, including white-tailed deer, hogs, bees, and domestic dogs, to mention just a few."
I doubt that ranchers and their lobbyists - the big and noisy anti-wolf faction - believe that statement, and the proposal does project that more wolves will kill more livestock. But from "an industry perspective the economic losses attributable to wolves would be genuinely trivial." The proposal recommends compensating ranchers for losses - as programs now do in all wolf states.
What is recovery?
The proposal answers a big question: How is recovery defined? The scientists chose a definition based on scholarship and case law: a species is recovered when it occupies much or most of its former range.
But even after a successful recovery, the authors don't expect to find wolves everywhere the animals once roamed. Humans have so damaged some historic range that it can't provide the needed prey and habitat. In other areas, humans present too much of a threat to wolves. However, even with wolves missing from some past range, wolf country would increase under a national wolf recovery plan.
The proposal imagines a small, vocal, and influential group insisting that Americans will not tolerate widespread recovery. But the authors believe that wolves and humans can coexist, and "if intolerance is a genuine threat to recovery, then according to federal law such threats must be mitigated before the wolf can be delisted."
Addressing hatred and intolerance
To me, that idea - that federal law requires reducing intolerance of wolves - is the cornerstone of a framework for envisioning wolf recovery. The danger for America's wolves emanates from our culture's ingrained hatred of a competitive species - most conflicts, after all, arise over who gets to eat livestock or wild game first. That hatred arrived with Old World colonists and over the years took on an American twist. By the early 1900s, the US Biological Survey - our nation's first government wolf-killers, played up the lies and fantasies behind that hatred as a way of generating funds for predator eradication. Once funds flowed, they and their prodigy, Wildlife Services, almost emptied the lower 48 of wolves. Even after seventy years with few wolves around, the hatred survived and today spawns vicious acts and intolerance.
That hatred lurks behind the vow of some states to kill all wolves except the minimum number their federally approved plans require. Those plans don't reduce wolf hatred; worse yet, they give the false impression that wolf recovery depends on the number of surviving breeding pairs. Numbers obscure the truth: we must transform our culture from one of wolf hatred to one of wolf respect.
A national wolf recovery plan could address the hatred and intolerance that threatens wolf recovery. It could include strategies to promote the value of wolves and change intolerance to - at the very least - begrudging acceptance.
I will present some possible strategies in forthcoming post.
Click here to read the Vucetich and Bruskotter paper.
Rick Lamplugh is a wolf advocate and author of the Amazon Bestseller "In the Temple of Wolves: A Winter's Immersion in Wild Yellowstone." Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from the author.