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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Yellowstone Wolves: Ensnared Again in Controversy

Air Date: Week of

Three years ago, thirty grey wolves from Canada were released in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Many people celebrated the animals' return into country where sixty years earlier the packs had been eradicated to protect grazing livestock. But some groups, including the Montana Farm Bureau, objected to the recovery effort. And then, a federal judge ruled that the reintroduction programs violated the endangered species act. These wolves and their offspring, he said, need to be removed. It's one thing for a judge to order something to be done, it's another to make it so. Jane Fritz reports on the debate over the fate of the wolves of Yellowstone.


CURWOOD: Three years ago, 30 gray wolves from Canada were released in Yellowstone National Park in central Idaho. Many people celebrated the animals return into country where 60 years earlier the packs had been eradicated to protect grazing livestock. But some groups, including the Montana Farm Bureau, objected to the recovery effort. And then, a Federal judge ruled that the reintroduction programs violated the Endangered Species Act. These wolves and their offspring, he said, need to be removed. But it's one thing for a judge to order something to be done and it's another thing to make it so. Jane Fritz reports on the debate over the fate of the Yellowstone wolves.


WOMAN: The pack might be up on a high mountain right now, and the signals probably are getting disturbed from the topography of the land. And so what we do is we kind of go back and forth, try it from different angles to see if we can figure out exactly where they are. So that's what Nathan's doing with the telemetry right now.

FRITZ: It's late winter, and the wind bites cold over the frozen, snow-covered ground of Yellowstone's Lamar Valley. It's just past dawn. The Park Service biologist I'm with says there's a good chance we'll catch sight of the park's newest residents. Her words still hang in the frosty air as a pack of 5 wolves suddenly appear chasing a herd of elk.

MECH: We're just going to kind of monitor them from down there.

FRITZ: Dr. David Mech, one of the world's foremost wolf biologists, pulls up alongside our pickup. He's here working on a film about the wolves. Despite his lifetime of experience, this is the first time he's seen wolves and elk interact as predators and prey.

MECH: It's certainly been a real thrill to be able to come out in the Lamar Valley and just sit along the road and watch the wolves chase elk. Sometimes they kill them in front of you and watch them feed on carcasses. And see the scavengers come in, the eagles and the ravens and the coyotes and it's something we hadn't anticipated would be happening for quite a few years yet.

FRITZ: These wolves are among the first to roam Yellowstone in over 60 years. They're here because of a recovery effort that began 20 years ago to return the endangered predators to some of their former range. Dr. Mech says these wolves, released in 1995, are already helping to restore balance to the ecosystem.

WOMAN: I just saw 5 wolves running down that way.

FRITZ: The wolves are also helping the local economy. They're an attraction for visitors from all over the world. Mary Soan and her husband Rolf came here from Florida.

(Bird song)

SOAN: I caught a glimpse of a wolf this year. He was coming over a ridge and he just looked right at us, and then he went back over the ridge and then he came back again and came down. And we watched him till he went into some trees. But last year, we were able to watch 5 adults and 3 pups.

FRITZ: This project is considered the most successful and popular endangered species recovery effort ever in the US. The original group of 30 wolves has grown to more than 160. The species could soon be removed from the Endangered Species List altogether. For wolf advocates, it would be a remarkable achievement. But for others, it's their worst nightmare.

(Footfalls through tall grasses)

FRITZ: Horace Brailsford tends to a few sheep on his ranch in Paradise Valley, north of Yellowstone.

BRAILSFORD: There was actually one ewe, that I call Yahtzee, and the sheep that are here are all her lambs and then there's one ram.

FRITZ: Shortly after wolves were released in the park, one of them showed up and started killing his sheep.

BRAILSFORD: I don't feel the same as a lot of other people about how wonderful it is to have them around.

FRITZ: The lone wolf was eventually caught and killed, and Mr. Brailsford financially compensated for the losses. But because he lives so close to the park, he believed he was fighting a losing battle against the wolves. He sold most of his herd and now drives semi trucks for a living. He's bitter about his fate.

BRAILSFORD: In terms of seeing wolves in my personal opinion, I would like to see them, their hides tacked to the wall of the barn. But if I can't kill the wolf, I'd like to see it go back to the park and be penned into the park so that I would not see them again.

FRITZ: The US Fish and Wildlife Service hoped to address the concerns of recovery opponents like Mr. Brailsford by applying a special Endangered Species Act rule to these transplanted wolves. They're deemed experimental and non-essential, and have less protection than other endangered animals. Legally they can be destroyed if caught killing livestock. But opponents challenged the special status anyway in Federal court. Supporters were stunned when Judge Williams Downes recently struck down the reintroduction programs and ordered the wolves removed from the wild.

CLARK: Certainly our reaction was one of deep concern and disbelief.

FRITZ: Jamie Clark is Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, DC, the agency responsible for wolf recovery.

CLARK: We felt very strongly that our decision to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone and into the Idaho area was based on complete compliance with the Endangered Species Act, through a regulation that provided maximum flexibility for the surrounding public and maximum opportunity for quick recovery of the wolves in that area.

FRITZ: Judge Downes' temporary release stayed his ruling, and the Fish and Wildlife Service has appealed the decision. Ms. Clark wants the experimental populations left intact. But Judge Downes' decision has caused a surge of anti-wolf sentiment in the west. Senator Larry Craig of Idaho feels the recovery programs have run roughshod over the rights of states and the people who raise livestock. Although the court order addresses narrow procedural points, Senator Craig says it speaks to broader problems with the Endangered Species Act.

CRAIG: I support the Endangered Species Act, and I have been supportive of the reintroduction of different species. But there has to be some reality placed with how you do it and the types of species you reintroduce instead of this blanket lockstep approach that all species have to be reintroduced, the human species be damned.

FRITZ: There are several possible outcomes to the appeal of the judge's decision. The wolves could be allowed to stay in the wild under the experimental status. The order to remove the wolves could be upheld and the animals either killed or put in captivity. Or the wolves could be granted full Endangered Species protection, meaning that ranchers could no longer kill attacking wolves. Senator Craig says if that happens, it would spell trouble for the Endangered Species Act.

CRAIG: If we get an absolute listing, then I think you're going to see a rebellion in the west, if there is no ability to manage animals of prey that might bring down domestic livestock. And there would be no ability to manage that.

FRITZ: For its part, the US Fish and Wildlife Service argues that these are exactly the kinds of concerns that the experimental, nonessential approach was designed to address. Director Jamie Clark says she's confident the reintroduction programs will be upheld on appeal, and the Agency will continue to implement similar recovery projects, like those for grizzly bears and Mexican wolves.

CLARK: We're very mindful of the judge's decision in Yellowstone, but we're also very committed to restoring and recovering endangered species in as flexible a manner as the Endangered Species Act allows us. And so, we're continuing to move forward on many fronts.

FRITZ: The appeal of Judge Downes' order will be heard later this year, with a decision expected by next summer. Meanwhile, the transplanted wolves will continue to repopulate Yellowstone and the Central Idaho wilderness, be studied by biologists, and attract visitors to the park hoping to hear or see a wolf.


MAN: Now, where'd the other 2 go?

MAN 2: The 3 are right up on the ridge but I don't see them.

MAN: The other 2 are going in the other direction.

(Bird calls)

MAN: Well, there's elk way up there.

MAN 2: Yeah.

FRITZ: For Living on Earth, I'm Jane Fritz.

(Wind continues)

MAN: Did those 2 go toward the elk? Where'd those 2 go? Oh, there they are, to the right. To the left.

(Music up and under: Paul Winter consort)

MAN 2: Oh, yeah, the 2 grays?

MAN: Yeah.



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