Crying wolf 

Enviros ramp up rhetoric ahead of delisting

It is said the first casualty of war is the truth. The same goes for the war over wolves.

An image of a wolf pup lying among flowers appears on the front of a recent National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) mailer, with the text: “How will this wolf pup survive…once its pack is slaughtered by aerial guns?” On the back: “Join our fight to save the wolves of Greater Yellowstone from an impending massacre.”

The NRDC, a national environmental action group, works to “protect wildlife and wild places and to ensure a healthy environment for all life on earth.” But Carolyn Sime, wolf coordinator with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, thinks the group’s current effort aims to put a “‘court of perception’ campaign ahead of ‘court of law’ proceedings.”

The gray wolf’s on-again, off-again Endangered Species List status tilted again toward delisting when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar approved a plan to hand wolf management back to Montana and Idaho. Lawsuits loom over the controversial March 6 decision, and environmental groups’ rhetoric ahead of the court battle borders on the sensational, some wildlife officials say.

“NRDC and other groups are flat out spinning a bunch of horse pucky trying to get more money from people by telling them made-up, highly emotional horror stories,” says Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Bangs and Sime point to a number of fundraising e-mails and mailers NRDC and other groups recently sent to members. Another reads: “Nearly 1,000 wolves from Greater Yellowstone to Glacier National Park could be caught in the cross-fire of state-sponsored wolf hunts—and that killing could begin in just a few weeks.

“The decision couldn’t come at a worse time. Breeding season is here, and wolves will start giving birth in April. That means pregnant females and newborn pups will be among those gunned down.”

A Defenders of Wildlife press release similarly claims delisting allows for the killing of nearly two-thirds of the region’s wolves.

According to the 2008 interagency report, at least 1,645 wolves live in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Idaho’s plan calls for maintaining at least 500 of its estimated 846 wolves. Montana agrees to keep at least 400 of its 497 wolves. Hunting will occur in both states to help regulate the populations. None of Wyoming’s 302 wolves—including those in Yellowstone National Park—could be legally killed, as they’ll remain under federal protection.

“So delisting in Montana and Idaho will not affect the Yellowstone Park wolves or any of the wolves in the Greater Yellowstone area in Wyoming,” says Bangs, “and no one is suggesting there will be anything but a very limited and highly regulated fair chase—i.e., no aircraft or snowmachine—hunting in Montana and Idaho, which will absolutely not threaten the wolf population and will maintain it at over 1,200 wolves.”

Exaggerated scientific claims have marked the highly emotional wolf debate since the beginning, Bangs says, but the environmental groupss recent fabrications could potentially hurt their cause. “I think they risk their credibility because they’re just saying stuff that isn’t true,” he says.

Louisa Wilcox, NRDC’s senior wildlife advocate in Livingston, Mont., calls her group’s claims legitimate. The Idaho and Montana management plans contain no language binding the states to the 900-some wolves they say they’ll keep, she argues, only to 15 breeding pairs each, or about 150 wolves. So the assertion that 1,000 wolves could die “comes from the only binding standard in the delisting rule,” she says.

That’s true, Bangs acknowledges, but only under a “theoretical, worst-case scenario” that’s “basically impossible.”

“You can do the math and make it appear like a horror show—crying wolf, so to speak—but really that’s not what the states have committed to,” Bangs says.

Wilcox’s concern comes mostly from Idaho’s approach to wolf management, which stands out as far more aggressive than Montana’s. The Idaho Department of Fish & Game seeks to kill an undetermined number of wolves in the Lolo elk management zone within northern Idaho’s Clearwater region—which borders Missoula County—to reduce pressure on elk herds. That hunt does not hinge on delisting, however. Recent revisions to an Endangered Species Act rule known as 10(j) provide for such population control if the state can prove predators are a “major cause” of declining ungulate numbers. Delisting would only make it easier to greenlight the hunt.

“That’s the area we’re immediately concerned with this spring,” says Wilcox, who contends about 120 Clearwater-area wolves are at risk. But Jim Unsworth, Fish & Game deputy director, says there’s zero chance of a hunt there before fall, rebutting the urgency of environmental groups’ fundraising appeals.

Impending massacre or not, Sime says environmental groups “lobbing grenades from the sidelines,” as she puts it, only sets back collaborative approaches to wolf management. She argues that Montana’s track record, at least, deserves some level of trust in a debate that has both sides ultimately fighting for the same thing—responsible state management.

“Hard decisions are made everyday to create capacity for wolves on the landscape,” she says, “and these delays in delisting in a way violate an element of trust and credibility…I’ve heard some ranchers say, ‘A deal is a deal.’”
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