Species: Gray Wolf
Trip: All Rivers in Idaho and the Rogue River in Oregon
Habitat: North America West Mountain Ranges
Likelihood of encountering this species: Extremely Unlikely
The wolf carries with it a diversity of meaning. For each person the wolf means something different.
To many of the early settlers of the American West, a gray wolf was a predator to be feared. Evoked by the European fairy tales of their heritage, the settlers saw the wolf as a threat to their livestock, to themselves, and competition for hunting game. The local and state governments implemented programs to control wolves and other wild predators. Hunters were often rewarded for each kill with cash. By the 1930s, the wolf was absent from American West.
Fast forward to December of 2011 when the first wolf of the 21st century was documented in California - 87 years had passed since the last wolf was recorded in the state.
Attitudes have changed towards the wolf between the early 20th century and now. For those of us who have just stepped onto the scene, say, on a river trip in Idaho or Oregon, there are a lot of questions: How did wolves find their way back into the American West? Where do we go from here?
The idea of reintroducing wolves to the American West is not a new one. In the mid-1900s populations of elk and deer across the intermountain west were growing exponentially. While hunting by humans can help this issue, hunting is not permitted in some areas such as Yellowstone National Park. As early as the 1960s, biologists were suggesting that more predators were needed to balance the ecosystem.
In 1973 the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was created. The gray wolf was added to the list in 1974, thus giving legal leverage to create a re-introduction program.
The ESA did not in itself pave the way for wolf reintroduction. Many people and organizations had questions and apprehensions about what would happen when the wolf suddenly re-appeared in a place it had been absent for so long. Would people be safe? Would livestock be safe? Would there be game enough for recreational hunting? How would the wolves be managed?
These questions and more held up the re-introduction process for decades. Many drafts of the re-introduction plan were made and compromises were negotiated. One of those compromises allowed each state to draft and implement its own wolf management plan. A special fund was also created to compensate ranchers for killed livestock. Also of note, exceptions to the ESA were made for livestock owners to legally harass and kill wolves who were in the act of killing livestock.
In 1995 young grey wolves from a pack in neighboring Alberta, Canada were re-located to Yellowstone and Central Idaho. A great experiment in wildlife restoration had begun.
The wolves were welcomed by many who were rooting for environmental conservation. Their hopes were soon validated as subsequent studies showed improvements to ecosystems over-grazed by complacent herd animals. Yellowstone National Park enjoyed wolf-specific tourism. Others see the wolf as a representative of the success of the Endangered Species Act.
While the wolves began to thrive again, many people still saw the reintroduction of wolves as a symbol of the federal government forcing its policies on the individual and state. Control over wolf management plans was given to the state, but the plan had to be approved by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Approval would only be given if the state's plan demonstrated adequate intention and mechanisms that would ensure the long-term success of the wolf population. Some states adherence to this was questionable, and adequately reflected the attitudes of many of their citizens.
As expected, the wolves did not stay in one location. As a part of their biology, they wander away from their pack to find new mates and new territory. OR-7, a wolf born in the North East corner of Oregon, logged over 1,000 miles of wandering. He finally settled down in the Rogue-Syskiou Wilderness with a new mate and has started a pack.
As the wolves territory expands, each state has in place a plan to manage the population. Their status as an endangered species varies depending on region and population. It is important to recognize that each wolf population in North America is uniquely managed. As an example, it is important to realize that a breaking news story about wolves in Isle Royale in Michigan is not connected to the population status in Idaho or Oregon.
As we go forward we must also recognize that the many faces we as humans assign to wolves will be forever evolving along with their perceived place in western society. As a tourist in these places where wolves roam, the likelihood of seeing a wild wolf is slim to none. You will, however, see some of those assigned faces in the form of bumper stickers, news articles and hand-painted signs along rural roads. You will see wolves in the news, and it is within all of our power to be informed on how they arrived to this moment and place.
To learn more about the current state of wolves you can read the current wolf recovery report by the US Fish and Wildlife Service here: http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/wolf/annualrpt14/index.html
For further reading, and to see where I pulled my information check out the following:
- Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Wolf Management Plan: http://www.dfw.state.or.us/Wolves/index.asp
- A good essay summary and opinion on the varying relationships between Wolves and People: https://www.wildlifemanagementinstitute.org/PDF/10-The%20Good%20Bad....pdf
- And of course, Wikipedia is a good jumping off point for research: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolf_reintroduction#Yellowstone_National_Park_and_Central_Idaho