Not since Wyatt Earp and his deputized brothers (played epically by Kurt Russell and crew in "Tombstone") squared off against the Clantons in the OK Corral has the Wild West witnessed such a brawl.
In a battle that has been raging since before reintroduced packs of gray wolves in the West began their documented path of harassment and attacks on livestock and wildlife populations, pro-management groups seem to be gaining the upper hand—at least temporarily. But anti-hunting groups cloaked in the more public-friendly façade of caring environmentalists have stepped back into the arena and thrown a renewed flurry of legal punches.
Can you say, "Huckleberry?"
On May 4 of this year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Serve (USFWS) moved to reinstate its 2009 decision to delist biologically recovered gray wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountains. That original decision, which effectively turned management of the wolves over to the states where the reintroduced packs had been placed, largely affected people and wildlife living in Idaho, Montana, Washington, Utah and parts of Oregon.
Wolves will remain listed under the Endangered Species Act in Wyoming until that state develops a wolf management plan that is accepted by the Feds.
The original delisting led to the opening of a couple of hunting seasons for wolves in order to help control the packs, which have far exceeded the original goal of 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs in each of the three primary recovery states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. That goal was met back in 2002. Today, it is estimated there are more than 1,700 wolves in the region and their impact on wildlife has been severe. But that amount may actually be much higher.
At a press conference earlier this year, RMEF President and CEO David Allen revealed that wildlife populations, such as the Yellowstone elk herd, had suffered tremendously as a result of harsh winters and the effects of wolf depredation to go from an estimated 19,000 animals in the mid 1990s to just over 4,600 elk this year. Toby Bridges, with a wolf control advocacy group called Lobo Watch, reports that Idaho's Lolo Unit elk population has been effectively reduced by 70 to 80 percent as a result of wolf depredation. In an interview with Montana NBC news affiliate KECI Allen said, “Animal rights groups and some media are still using the 2008 wolf population estimate of 1,700 for the northern Rockies as if no population growth is occurring. But wolves reproduce by as much as 25 percent each year. Simple math shows it’s possible there could be more than 3,000 wolves in the northern Rockies by the end of 2011—almost double the number we usually see in the news."
Indeed, go to any hunting or western outdoor message board where the topic of wolves is discussed and you will find countless anecdotes of elk and other big game being virtually wiped out in certain areas. It has gotten so bad in some parts of the country that outfitters have had to close up shop because of the lack of game.
Despite all of the evidence, a coalition of anti-hunting and environmental groups managed to put a stop to any more hunts several years ago, arguing that wolf populations needed to remain under the protection of the ESA listing. The move tied up state management of wolf populations in the courts and Congress until the Fiscal Year 2011 appropriation's bill reinstated the intent of the 2009 decision and forced USFWS's move on May 4.
"Like other iconic species such as the whooping crane, the brown pelican and the bald eagle, the recovery of the gray wolf is another success story of the Endangered Species Act," said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Of course, whooping cranes and pelicans have never torn apart a 100-pound elk calf or a rancher's cattle.
A recent press release by the NRA revealed that, although language in the federal budget bill stated that the most recent delisting could not be challenged in court, the same day the announcement was made, four environmental groups—the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Clearwater, WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity—filed lawsuits doing just that.
The NRA and SCI promptly counterpunched by filing for intervenor status in the challenges. RMEF has also filed to intervene in the case on the behalf of state governments and other pro-management interests.
The most intense fighting has been at the state government level, as state wildlife agencies seek to strike a balance between appropriately managing wolves and maintaining their presence without overly impacting ranching, sporting and citizen interests in the affected areas. Much of the ire has been directed at the federal government in the form of the USFWS and federal courts, which have tied the state agencies' hands.
As the law sits now, sportsmen in Montana and Idaho could see management hunts and available tags for taking wolves as early as this fall. It is a move—right now the only effective move—that will offer relief to hard-hit elk, deer and moose populations throughout the region. After the reinstated delisting, Idaho Department of Game and Fish Director Virgil Moore said his agency would act quickly to remove as many as 60 wolves from the hard-hit Lolo Unit.
"Anti-hunting and animal rights extremists seek to incrementally destroy America's hunting heritage," said Chris Cox, Executive Director of NRA's Institute for Legislative Action. "The NRA's and SCI's filing for intervenor status seeks to ensure that American hunters and their interests are represented in this case, as we continue to fight for the complete delisting of gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act."
As the showdown is far from over in the West, another in the upper Midwest is just heating up.
As part of the USFWS's action early last month to reinstate the western wolf population's delisting, they also proposed to delist those recovered packs in the Western Great Lakes, which includes Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. Wolf numbers total more than 4,000 animals in that region.
Wisconsin farming interests, as well as sportsmen and citizens, have been lobbying for relief in that state from the effects of growing wolf packs, which have even been responsible for a number of pet deaths in the northern reaches of the state.