What is Wilderness Without its Wolves?
By Franz Camenzind
For millennia, wolves have occupied nearly all the lands now designated as Wilderness in the western US, with the exception of coastal California. Yet today, fewer than two score of the approximately 540 Wildernesses west of the 100th meridian (not including Alaska’s 48) can claim some number of wolves as residents and only a dozen or so harbor wolves in numbers sufficient to be considered sustainable—in either the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Central Idaho Wildlands or Montana’s Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. Arguably, the long-term sustainability of wolves in other Wilderness areas is at risk due to the limited security provided by those smaller, often isolated landscapes.
The Wilderness Act defines Wilderness as a place where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by humankind, retains its primeval character and where natural conditions are preserved. Simply stated, Wilderness is meant to exist with minimal human interference. Yet within the vast majority of Wilderness areas, the wolf, the apex species with profound ecosystem influence, is now absent—an absence due entirely to the relentless killing by humankind.
We need look no farther than Yellowstone National Park to witness the influence wolves have on an ecosystem. The park’s wolves were exterminated by the early 1900s, ostensibly to protect the park’s favored elk herds. What followed was not surprising—an overabundance of elk which led to deleterious impacts to vegetation, particularly lower elevation riparian and willow communities.
Since the reintroduction of wolves to the park in the mid-1990s, elk numbers have dropped to levels most ecologists agree resemble something near carrying capacity. Similarly, park wolf numbers stabilized around 100, after initial highs of 150-170. With the wolf’s return, the park ecosystem is showing signs of reaching a dynamic equilibrium beneficial to all components. It’s not an exaggeration to say that wolves were instrumental in returning the park’s wildlands nearer to their primeval conditions.
Wolves hold apex status, in part, because of their far-ranging hunting behavior. Yellowstone-area wolf packs hunt in territories ranging from 185-310 square miles. Besides being smaller, the Yellowstone elk herd is more dispersed and spends less time in the lower elevation meadows and riparian-willow communities.
Most ecologists agree that the wolf’s collective impact on elk is contributing to the resurgence of the willow communities, which in turn is witnessing an increase in avian biodiversity and density. The revitalization of Yellowstone’s northern range willow communities has also enabled an increase in the beaver population, leading to positive changes to stream ecology, thus benefitting aquatic invertebrates and the fisheries.
Many of the ecological changes brought about by the wolf’s return may take years if not decades to recognize and fully understand. But one thing is clear, today’s Yellowstone and the Wildernesses harboring robust wolf populations more closely resemble their primeval character than those lacking wolves. Wolves may just be nature’s best wilderness stewards.
Three states now account for the majority of the west’s wolves: Idaho (1,556), Montana (1,220) and Wyoming (347). Another 351 are tallied for Washington (178) and Oregon (173). Mexican Gray Wolves occur in two states: New Mexico (114) and Arizona (72). Combined, approximately 3,660 wolves currently reside west of the 100th meridian—a number that pales to the 250,000 to 2 million estimated to have resided in the entire United States before the European invasion. However, the current numbers are better than the few dozen residing in northwest Montana three decades ago, which were a result of wolves immigrating from Canada.
Today’s bad news is that wolves in Idaho and Montana are once again facing the vigilante actions of the 1800s. Both state legislatures recently passed draconian legislation with the stated objective of reducing wolf numbers to near 150—the number at which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) will take over wolf management as per the states’ wolf management agreements in effect since Endangered Species Act protections were taken away from wolves.
The new legislation authorizes the state commissions to allow wolf-killing by pretty much any means imaginable: the use of traps and snares, unlimited quotas, extended hunting and trapping seasons, and in Idaho, night time hunting, aerial gunning and killing pups in dens. Idaho also designated $200,000 dollars to “cover expenses incurred” by private individuals while killing wolves—essentially imposing a bounty on wolves.
Idaho’s and Montana’s aggressive wolf-killing legislation has been temporarily dampened a bit by the states’ wildlife commissions which have some leeway when setting annual wolf hunting and trapping regulations. For instance, this season, Montana is limiting the open-ended quotas written into their legislation. But the intent and goals remain unchanged—it may just take a few more years to achieve those goals. Ironically, that means more wolves will be killed because each year the survivors will produce young, thus replenishing their numbers, resulting in “a need” to kill more wolves to reach the 150 goal.
State wildlife agencies manage wolves by the numbers, ignoring the fact that wolves are one of the most social species on the planet, and function and survive not as individuals, but as members of highly structured packs. Consequently, intense, random killing can cause packs to break up, resulting in diminished hunting efficiency and pushing wolves toward easier prey, such as livestock.
Today, wolves and the wilderness ecosystems they inhabit are imminently threatened by these irresponsible state efforts to kill upwards of 90 percent of their wolf populations, including within Wilderness. A weakened or removed apex species inevitably results in a weakened ecological system. If this barbaric killing is allowed to proceed, ecosystem function and wilderness protection will be pushed back decades.
Wilderness Watch continues to fight for Wilderness and its wolves. On December 6, Wilderness Watch and a dozen allies filed a lawsuit and a motion for a temporary restraining order/preliminary injunction against the State of Idaho over its barbaric new wolf-killing laws. This followed a June 2021 Notice of Intent to sue Idaho and Montana for their new anti-wolf statues. We’ve petitioned the US Department of Agriculture to promulgate rules or issue closure orders preventing certain killing methods, hired killers, and paying bounties in Wilderness. Wilderness Watch also joined a petition authored by Western Watersheds Project to relist wolves under the Endangered Species Act in light of the new, aggressive wolf-killing statutes. In response, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it will undertake a status review of the gray wolf over the next 12 months.
A Wilderness denied of its wolves is a wounded Wilderness. If wolves can’t be allowed live in Wilderness, where can they live? Wilderness Watch will continue to do all it can to protect this critical, symbiotic relationship and the ecological integrity of Wilderness itself.
Franz Camenzind is a wildlife biologist turned filmmaker and environmental activist who recently retired from the WW Board after serving 6 years.