When bald eagles soared off the endangered species list last summer, there were champagne toasts from coast to coast. Americans were proud to have restored another symbol of freedom and wildness. It was a success that mirrored previous restorations of elk, mule deer, black bears, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, mountain goats and a host of other wildlife n long before anyone dreamed of drafting an Endangered Species Act.
Now, 13 years after gray wolves were officially reintroduced to the northern Rockies, federal biologists have moved to free them from "the list," too. You'd think the people who argued longest and loudest to bring wolves back would be slapping backs and celebrating. Instead, they're filing lawsuits. Could be these folks are just terminally gloomy. Or maybe it was the old bait-and-switch.
The Endangered Species Act was never intended to create a permanent witness protection program for wolves. It's meant to recover robust self-sustaining populations, to create un-endangered species.
And wolves are so there.
Ed Bangs is wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He's been in charge of restoring wolves to the northern Rockies from day one. Bangs has lived in the crucible since those first Canadian wolves hit the ground in 1995. He's earned a reputation as a man absolutely committed to good science, not politics or opinion. On wolves, he says, "We're rock solid. The Endangered Species Act did its job. It's time to move on."
What does it mean to move on? The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation believes the sooner states take on the responsibility for managing wolves, the better. Maybe the lawsuits can be settled and control fully passed to the states before another year goes by. It's high time we start treating wolves as wild animals n more specifically, game animals.
Apart from the bald eagle, all of the once-rare species listed in the opening paragraph have been plentiful and actively hunted for 50 years. States have used the best available science to set seasons and quotas. They've teamed up with hunters as hands-on managers, keeping wild populations within local environmental and cultural tolerances. In the process, millions of families have collected a bounty of healthy meat, powerful connections with wild country and lasting fond memories.
"We strongly support hunting wolves," Bangs says. "Look at the success we've had with hunting mountain lions and maintaining strong lion populations. There is no reason wolf management cannot be just as successful."
Could wolves have made their comeback if their main prey consisted of hares or Herefords? No. It was hunters who financed the restoration-and continuing stewardship-of the big-game populations that made wolf recovery possible. Hunting licenses and excise taxes on guns, ammunition, bows and arrows still provide most of the funds that states use to study and manage wild species. But rather than supporting hunters and America's proven system of conservation, lawsuit plaintiffs are condemning both.
Certainly, proponents of perpetual wolf protection aren't the only ones who can get a little emotional. When wolves kill elk or cattle, the carnage makes it easy to imagine that wolves might soon lay waste to all wildlife and livestock. Sometimes it's good to step back and look at the numbers.
Cumulative 2007 numbers for Idaho, Montana and Wyoming:
3 million people, 1,500 wolves n and around 350,000 elk. In 1995, there were a half-million fewer people, no wolves n and around 350,000 elk.
That's right. Since wolves were reintroduced, Montana's elk population has grown by at least 30,000 animals, Wyoming's elk population is down 8,000 and Idaho's is 10,000 lower. Hunter harvest totals have remained very similar since 1995, averaging 20,000 in Idaho, 25,000 in Montana, and 20,000 in Wyoming.
This doesn't mean that wolves haven't taken an extremely heavy toll on elk and livestock in some places. They have. They will. And that's another reason why we should be actively managing wolves through regulated hunting.
From where I sit, the biggest change on the northern Rockies landscape since 1995 is not the return of wolves. It's the way our wild places and open spaces are filling up with houses and roads and box stores. There is no Endangered Habitat Act. That's why I'm so proud of what the Elk Foundation has accomplished. Just in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, our organization has helped conserve a quarter-million acres of prime habitat, and enhance habitat on another 1.5 million acres, for elk and other wildlife.
Your role? Support state-based wolf management via hunting. And, even more importantly, support organizations working to ensure that all of us-you, me, our children and grandchildren, and all wildlife-have plenty of wild country to roam.
David Allen is president and CEO of the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.