What is Wilderness Without its Wolves?

Franz 200x150

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.

 

Wolf

Secretary Haaland and the Izembek Refuge
Hulahula River Pingo
 

Comments 107

Guest - Laura Arias on Wednesday, 22 December 2021 02:04

It is HIGH time we actually really start protecting our wolves! They are an important part of our ecosystem, but most importantly, the fact that they can FEEL pain and FEAR, grants them natural rights that we, as “smart” species, SHOULD respect.

It is HIGH time we actually really start protecting our wolves! They are an important part of our ecosystem, but most importantly, the fact that they can FEEL pain and FEAR, grants them natural rights that we, as “smart” species, SHOULD respect.
Guest - michael guest on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 23:01

This has gone way too far. After the wolves lost federal protections, their numbers are now in serious danger of being hunted and trapped again. States have no management for wolves. When wildlife, including wolves are in danger, they should be saved, not killed. Inaction is not an option. Now's not the time to stand by or ignore this problem. Wolves are apex predators, and they play vital roles in the ecosystems. This is unacceptable and unfair. Wolves need our help more than ever. With their future hanging in the balance, we must act fast, and restore the federal protections that wolves need to survive. Like all animals and wildlife, wolves have a right to live, and they deserve better. Please do the right thing and save the wolves before it's too late. This is extremely important and serious.

This has gone way too far. After the wolves lost federal protections, their numbers are now in serious danger of being hunted and trapped again. States have no management for wolves. When wildlife, including wolves are in danger, they should be saved, not killed. Inaction is not an option. Now's not the time to stand by or ignore this problem. Wolves are apex predators, and they play vital roles in the ecosystems. This is unacceptable and unfair. Wolves need our help more than ever. With their future hanging in the balance, we must act fast, and restore the federal protections that wolves need to survive. Like all animals and wildlife, wolves have a right to live, and they deserve better. Please do the right thing and save the wolves before it's too late. This is extremely important and serious.
Guest - Sandy on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 21:34

Wolves are an important part of nature's food chain. When the numbers of wolves go down, the numbers of other prey animals, like deer, go up. This causes an imbalance in nature, which is harmful to all animals.

Wolves are an important part of nature's food chain. When the numbers of wolves go down, the numbers of other prey animals, like deer, go up. This causes an imbalance in nature, which is harmful to all animals.
Guest - judith Keeley on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 21:22

WE Need Wolves!

WE Need Wolves!
Guest - Edh Stanley (website) on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 20:54

We need apex predators! Wolves were here first.

We need apex predators! Wolves were here first.
Guest - Robert Handelsman on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 20:49

Wolves should be back on the endangered species list

Wolves should be back on the endangered species list
Guest - David G Philleo on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 20:06

Such a tragedy and such hideous carnage

Such a tragedy and such hideous carnage
Guest - Colleen K on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 19:55

The ecosystem cannot survive without its predators. That is science, and common sense. I am tired of people demonizing, or disregarding the natural world because they are so sure that they are entitled. Sure we are the top of the food chain, but without the rest of the chain. We are alone. We perish.

The sheer arrogant inflexibility of big companies whose greed harms the natural world, hunters with rifles who think those weapons make them special. The short sighted ranchers who refuse to think about what a lack of predators will do to land and the others animals frustrates me immensely. It is time that human beings pay attention to the Earth, and nature around us not only if we want to survive but if we want to be decent human beings.

The ecosystem cannot survive without its predators. That is science, and common sense. I am tired of people demonizing, or disregarding the natural world because they are so sure that they are entitled. Sure we are the top of the food chain, but without the rest of the chain. We are alone. We perish. The sheer arrogant inflexibility of big companies whose greed harms the natural world, hunters with rifles who think those weapons make them special. The short sighted ranchers who refuse to think about what a lack of predators will do to land and the others animals frustrates me immensely. It is time that human beings pay attention to the Earth, and nature around us not only if we want to survive but if we want to be decent human beings.
Guest - Dennis A Werner on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 19:25

Any attack on wolves should cease at once and killing wolf pups in their den should never have been allowed .

Any attack on wolves should cease at once and killing wolf pups in their den should never have been allowed .
Guest - Michael G Ballin on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 18:59

Wolves demand all the protection we can give/ All animal species are specially precious at this time of mass extinction. I wonder if wolves somehow provoke prejudice They are seen as dangerous and preying rather than vulnerable and at one with nature.

Wolves demand all the protection we can give/ All animal species are specially precious at this time of mass extinction. I wonder if wolves somehow provoke prejudice They are seen as dangerous and preying rather than vulnerable and at one with nature.
Guest - Tom Dykstra on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 18:50

Wolves like all wildlife belong to the people not just the people who hate certain species state governments big beef companies wool and sport hunters don’t have special privileges to kill animals that belong to everyone the hatred has to stop I’m not an anti hunter I’ve got lots of trophy mounts in my house including a wolf but I’m ashamed of everyone who hates such a wonderful predator they feed way more than themselves Wolves need to be fully protected a healthy environment has all predator species stop the killing or we can stop buying products from the states that hate there wolves no more western beef no spuds from Idaho wool from Oregon cheese from Wisconsin we can go that route too

Wolves like all wildlife belong to the people not just the people who hate certain species state governments big beef companies wool and sport hunters don’t have special privileges to kill animals that belong to everyone the hatred has to stop I’m not an anti hunter I’ve got lots of trophy mounts in my house including a wolf but I’m ashamed of everyone who hates such a wonderful predator they feed way more than themselves Wolves need to be fully protected a healthy environment has all predator species stop the killing or we can stop buying products from the states that hate there wolves no more western beef no spuds from Idaho wool from Oregon cheese from Wisconsin we can go that route too
Guest - Annie McCuen on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 18:47

We have done so much harm to the environment and wildlife, on the brink of no recovery. Wolves are part of the balance of nature. They must be protected, cattle and farmers are not part of the balance of nature.

We have done so much harm to the environment and wildlife, on the brink of no recovery. Wolves are part of the balance of nature. They must be protected, cattle and farmers are not part of the balance of nature.
Guest - steve hopkins on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 18:43

Please protect wolves and their environment for all to enjoy.

Please protect wolves and their environment for all to enjoy.
Guest - Laura Stransky on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 18:36

The science IS CLEAR that by returning wolves to ecosystems the ENTIRE ECOSYSTEM improves!
PLEASE somehow get this word out to more and more and more people!
NEWS reports, newspapers, documentaries, books, everywhere we can reach more people to teach them.

The science IS CLEAR that by returning wolves to ecosystems the ENTIRE ECOSYSTEM improves! PLEASE somehow get this word out to more and more and more people! NEWS reports, newspapers, documentaries, books, everywhere we can reach more people to teach them.
Guest - TimesArrow on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 17:49

Thnk U for having ur own user forum/posts. i stopped using facebook 6 years ago. i cannot begin to understand the sickness in the minds of republicans/conservatives/corporations not just allowing but promoting the extinction of wild animal/plant life on earth! the earth is over populated yet no corporate media discuss this topic for 5 decades, why? the corporations want as many people packed on the earth as possible because each is a revenue stream. wolves are NOT corporate revenue streams.

Thnk U for having ur own user forum/posts. i stopped using facebook 6 years ago. i cannot begin to understand the sickness in the minds of republicans/conservatives/corporations not just allowing but promoting the extinction of wild animal/plant life on earth! the earth is over populated yet no corporate media discuss this topic for 5 decades, why? the corporations want as many people packed on the earth as possible because each is a revenue stream. wolves are NOT corporate revenue streams.
Guest - Tonya Stiffler on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 17:26

Wolves are an important animal on this earth. All animals are important and deserve to be protected. In Massachusetts, people wiped out the wolf population and now we have an overpopulation of deer that wolves use to keep in balance. Now, we have hunting seasons to keep deer populations down, the job that wolves use to do. Trapping and poisoning wildlife should be banned because it is cruel and not necessary. Wildlife and nature was designed to balance their food chain, they have been doing it for hundreds of years. When man gets involved they mess it up and cause more harm than good.

Wolves are an important animal on this earth. All animals are important and deserve to be protected. In Massachusetts, people wiped out the wolf population and now we have an overpopulation of deer that wolves use to keep in balance. Now, we have hunting seasons to keep deer populations down, the job that wolves use to do. Trapping and poisoning wildlife should be banned because it is cruel and not necessary. Wildlife and nature was designed to balance their food chain, they have been doing it for hundreds of years. When man gets involved they mess it up and cause more harm than good.
Guest - Shelley on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 17:11

The planet needs wolves!

The planet needs wolves!
Guest - Janet Murray on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 17:10

It is such a shame that the Wolf is so Vilified! They are as important to our ecosystem as any other animal! We must save them!!

It is such a shame that the Wolf is so Vilified! They are as important to our ecosystem as any other animal! We must save them!!
Guest - Sharon on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 16:46

We are not the only inhabitants of this earth and it's time we stop acting like we are. Wolves have a special place in this world and it's disgusting to see traps and poisons being used to attack wolves and their young. When will we learn?

We are not the only inhabitants of this earth and it's time we stop acting like we are. Wolves have a special place in this world and it's disgusting to see traps and poisons being used to attack wolves and their young. When will we learn?
Guest - DIANE M. KASTEL on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 16:09

Mankind has deemed itself judge, and, jury as to whether wildlife, or, any animals, are allowed to live, without threat. As long as mankind considers itself as dominant over, all, the beasts, and, birds, the persecution, exploitation, and, slaughter, will continue. Pessimistic, but, our history is proof.

Mankind has deemed itself judge, and, jury as to whether wildlife, or, any animals, are allowed to live, without threat. As long as mankind considers itself as dominant over, all, the beasts, and, birds, the persecution, exploitation, and, slaughter, will continue. Pessimistic, but, our history is proof.
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