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Shades of grey in Northern Rockies
The push to remove grey wolves as an endangered species in the US is replacing science with politics.
Last Modified: 15 Mar 2011 14:54 GMT

[Image credit for the main page: CC - Sakarri]

Ice-crusted snow blankets the mountains and grass as the temperature sinks further and further below zero.

This is winter in Yellowstone National Park - a time of year that constantly tests the endurance and survival of wildlife here in the heart of the American West.

Except for the grey wolf. Winter does not weaken them - it's when they thrive the most.

Watching them run through the park's deep snow with ease, it's easy to forget the political wrangling taking place in Washington, DC that could well determine their fate as politicians seek to strip the wild canine of its endangered protection.

Few animals have been as controversial in the United States as the grey wolf.

Repopulating the grey wolf

Once prevalent across the northern range of the US, they were eradicated from most of the country and entirely in the Northern Rockies by the 1930s as settlers moved west.

One of the first species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the grey wolf was reintroduced to Yellowstone and central Idaho in 1995 as wildlife managers sought to rebuild the region's population.

What followed was one of the greatest success stories in US conservation. The population is estimated to have grown to roughly 1700 across five states in the Northern Rockies.

With numbers up, the US Fish and Wildlife delisted the wolf from its endangered protection in Idaho and Montana in 2009 and managed hunts resumed - but not for long.

Last fall, a federal judge in Montana reversed that decision, saying that wolves could not be delisted in the two states while remaining protected in the neighbouring state of Wyoming - the argument being that wolves occupy a region and don't adhere to the borders of a state.

Wolves can be shot on site in most of Wyoming, which is why federal protections remain.

Taking the battle to the capitol

With their efforts stalled in court, Western politicians have taken the battle to the halls of Congress.

A barrage of legislation - including an amendment tucked into the Republicans current budget bill - would see the grey wolf delisted from the Endangered Species Act in some form by Congress.

The tamest bill has been introduced by Montana's two Democratic senators, which would return the wolf to state management in Idaho and Montana.

The loudest cavalry call has been led by Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg who has introduced legislation that would see the grey wolf exempted from the Endangered Species Act in the entire US.

Opinions differ among conservationists on whether or not the current population is enough, though the majority still think wolves need protection and larger numbers before hunting can be resumed.

Setting a poor precedent

But the recent political push to delist the wolf is raising wider concerns for them.

Conservationists say that efforts to have the wolf delisted by Congress - rather than by scientists as it normally is done - will open a door for wildlife to be dictated by political and business interests, versus scientific and ecological interests - challenging the very structure of the Endangered Species Act.

"It sets a precedent for any time there is a controversial species - which is many of the endangered species - they can be removed from the list politically," says Michael Leahy of Defenders of Wildlife.

Politicians from states with growing wolf populations such as Montana and Idaho want the species returned to state management.

"I heard from thousands of Montanans, and folks get it," says Congressman Rehberg. "They know that states are better at managing our own local wildlife than the federal government thousands of miles away. Unless there's a darn good reason - and there's not - the federal government has no business getting involved."

While the grey wolf is seemingly becoming a symbol of the federal government for conservative politicians, on ranches in Montana, sentiment is decisively driven by something different.

The threat to cattle

Druska and Richard Kinkie have raised cattle for decades on their ranch surrounded by the rugged peaks of Paradise Valley, just north of Yellowstone. For them, the rising wolf population is a threat to their livelihood.

"It was likened to us one time that a wolf might only take one percent of your calf crop," recalls Druska, "and my husband once looked at someone and said, would you give up one percent of your income every year? And of course no one would, but they don't look at it like that. They just look at it as an animal that's expendable."

"It's just one more thing and it can be that one more thing for a particular producer that they just can't take any more. It's - if one more thing that we have to worry about, that we have absolutely no control over, happens to us - we're done."

Conservationists say they understand that frustration. Many are working with local ranchers to use non-lethal ways to defend their livestock and keep wolves at bay.

"The big myth is that we can't live with wolves, that we can't coexist. But through our projects working with ranchers, it has been proven that we can live with wolves. It takes a little bit of effort and accepting that wolves are part of the landscape," says Leahy.

They've also changed the landscape. By controlling the elk population, the restoration of wolves has caused a domino effect across the entire Yellowstone ecosystem.

With less elk idling their time on land where vegetation once grew, now flora and fauna have returned that were once gone, enhancing habitat for other wildlife like beavers and grizzly bears. Wolf kills also provide meals beyond the pack, for animals like coyotes, magpies, bald eagles and bears.

Legislation to perdition

Despite these benefits and the conservationist outreach efforts, with the protracted legal battles, many ranchers and hunters are losing patience with the politics of wildlife.

One way of dealing with wolves that we learned of during our filming was the mantra of the Three S's - "Shoot. Shovel. Shut Up." That is, if you see a wolf - shoot it, bury it and don't talk about it.

But the last part recently became unnecessary in Montana. Tired of courtroom battles, Montana's governor Brian Schweitzer recently encouraged state officials and local ranchers and hunters to kill a wolf and its pack that have attacked livestock or wild elk herds.

Schweitzer said anyone who does so would not be investigated, despite violating federal law.

Meanwhile, the bills to delist the grey wolf from the Endangered Species Act are making their way closer to committee and closer to the floors of the House and Senate.

The one point that the entire cast of players in this debate may agree upon is that ultimately there needs to be a better management plan for wolves - both from states and from the federal government.

As the legal and political pressures mount and patience wears thin out West, the outcome of the battle testing the country's premiere environmental and conservation law seems uncertain.

"It was a great commitment of this country to recover wildlife and take the steps to recover these species, even controversial ones like wolves," Leahy says. "There is a lot of momentum on the other side for removing the wolf. But historically it was really hard to damage the Endangered Species Act because there was so much support around the country. But I'm not as sure that we can beat back those pushes the way we have in the past."

Source:
Al Jazeera
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