What many environmentalists have been claiming to be a “true conservation success story” is now showing its very negative side.

Amongst extreme controversy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service kicked off the Wolf Recovery Project of the Northern Rockies back in 1995 with the release of the first wolves to set foot in the Greater Yellowstone Area in more than 50 years.  Or, so that agency claimed.  And so began the conflict between residents of the region and a number of environmental “wolf friendly” advocacy groups.

Under the auspicious directives of the 1974 Endangered Species Act, USFWS set out to establish a “recovered” population of gray wolves along the northern stretch of the Rocky Mountains in northwestern Wyoming, western Montana and northern Idaho.  Despite claims by residents who indicated several small pockets of the native wolf (Canis lupus irremotus) of the region still existed, that federal wildlife agency decided that in order to accelerate the questionable “reintroduction” of wolves into the three states required the transplanting of wolves from elsewhere.  In this case, that elsewhere proved to be primarily Alberta and British Columbia, Canada, where wolves were never endangered.  However, those wolves were an entirely different subspecies (Canis lupus occidentalis), which just threw more fuel onto the growing fire of this controversial project.

The native wolf of the Northern Rockies, often referred to as a “timber wolf”, typically topped out in weight at between 90 and 100 pounds, with an average weight for adult males somewhere around 80 to 90 pounds.  The wolves that USFWS elected to use as replacements were larger “pack wolves”, with mature males averaging between 110 to 130 pounds.  However, in their native northern Canadian habitat,  some of the wolves harvested by sport hunters or taken by government hunters to reduce livestock depredation have topped 140 pounds.  (The largest on record weighed 175 pounds.)  Not only does the added size of the transplanted wolves make it easier for these apex predators to bring down game as large as elk and moose, they are likewise proving to be far more aggressive than the wolves known to have resided in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.  In some areas, the transplanted non-native and non-indigenous Canadian wolves have already destroyed 60- to 80-percent of the elk herds that were here before those wolves were released into this wildlife rich ecosystem.  Many of those residents who claimed that the native wolf still existed before the Wolf Recovery Project say that the invasive wolves from far north of the border have completely wiped out any remaining population of the native wolf, which in itself has been a violation of the Endangered Species Act.

“Were there any native timber wolves left in northwestern Montana?  I guess we’ll never really know… now.  But, I personally know there were!” says Billy Hill, a rancher and former backcountry outfitter from Trout Creek, Montana.

During its planning and stage setting for the Wolf Recovery Project, USFWS has been accused of stepping across the line by manipulating wolf science simply for the sake of making their job easier.  Prior to the wolf being included on the list of endangered species in 1974, wildlife scientists had recognized 24 subspecies of wolves that either had been previously found or could currently still be found in North America.  The USFWS took it upon itself to reduce that number to just 5 subspecies.

Was this simply to cover the fact that the wolves USFWS were bringing into the Northern Rockies were not the same wolf the project was to replace?  More and more of those now forced to live with these wolves, and to endure the damage they are dealing wildlife and livestock, believe that USFWS pulled off a real bait and switch.  And many are now questioning the legality of the agency dumping a non-native and definitely non-endangered wolf in this country.

Sportsmen and ranchers, who tend to be even closer to the land and wildlife than most Americans, feel that to cover this intentional faux pas, USFWS has done its best to simply make “Canis lupus”, the gray wolf, “Canis lupus” – no matter what their true subspecies may be…or may have been.  One rancher, who chooses to remain anonymous, says this is like saying all cattle are the same – whether they’re a black Angus or a Texas longhorn.  Both are bovines.

Should USFWS have the freedom to alter the intention of the Endangered Species Act, by substituting a different subspecies to supplement, or completely replace, an endangered species/subspecies?

“That kind of flexibility would certainly make their job of getting wildlife removed from the Endangered Species List a heck of a lot easier,” says Chuck Kleffner, founder of a new Montana sportsman based organization known as Montana Sportsmen United.

Kleffner goes on to point out that the Sonoran pronghorn of Mexico is extremely endangered, with the remaining population down to less than 800 animals.  However, in the state of Wyoming, there are now as many pronghorn, often erroneously referred to as an “antelope”, as there are people – maybe even more.

“If it’s okay to bring a non-native subspecies of wolf down from Canada, and turn them loose in the Northern Rockies, allowing them to kill or breed out the few native wolves still here…what would be so wrong about trucking down 20,000 Wyoming pronghorns and dumping them in Mexico to ‘supplement’ the suffering population of Sonoran pronghorn?  After all, a pronghorn is a pronghorn.  Right?” adds Chuck Kleffner.

Is this really the true intention of the Endangered Species Act?  No it isn’t.  In fact, the non-endangered wolves which were brought here were a threat to a truly endangered subspecies of wolf.  And that does indeed violate the ESA.

Big Game Forever, another new sportsman organization, along with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Utah based Sportsmen For Fish and Wildlife are now pooling their efforts to have Congress amend the ESA.  In late July, U.S. Congressman Chet Edwards of Texas presented a bill (H.R. 6028) which would effectively remove ESA protection for the gray wolf.  And the amendment of the Act

would only require the addition of one short paragraph.  That paragraph would read, “The Gray wolf (Canis lupus) shall not be treated as an endangered species or threatened species for purposes of this Act.”

With as many as 5,000 wolves now spread out across the Upper Midwest (Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan), and another 3,000 to 4,000 now roaming the Northern Rockies of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the gray wolf is hardly endangered in the continental United States, and is especially non-endangered across Canada and Alaska, where another 50,000 to 60,000 are doing quite nicely – to the point that their numbers have to be tightly controlled to contain excessive depredation of elk, caribou, moose, deer and other big game populations.  In fact, even where there are “shoot on sight” harvest opportunities in Canada and Alaska, wolves have destroyed a number of caribou herds.  And in the Northern Rockies of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming some elk herds are now in danger of being lost forever.  With wolves now spreading rapidly across the upper regions of the Midwest, deer and moose populations are also crashing quickly.

So, why do so-called “environmental” organizations such as the Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club continue to fight the ESA delisting of wolves in the Lower 48, keeping wolf control tied up in federal court?

“Wolves are being exploited in an attempt to remove the rights of the sportsmen to have access to and use of renewable wildlife resources.  Notwithstanding the experimental nature of wolf reintroductions and repeated declarations that wolf populations have expanded far beyond recovery objectives, these groups continue to make millions of dollars suing the federal government on technicalities within the Endangered Species Act.  It has become clear that there will be no end to the litigation despite the unprecedented damage to wildlife, surplus killing of livestock, and attacks on pets and guard dogs in the West and Upper Midwest.  Ultimately those most affected by the ongoing litigation continue to be sportsmen and wildlife, including the very wolves the anti-sporting groups proclaim to protect,” claims Ryan Benson, National Director for Big Game Forever.

Next: Part 2