It may not be the most welcome news for elk and deer and other woodland creatures, but the gray wolves of the northern Rocky Mountains are back. After being driven to near extinction in the continental United States more than 50 years ago, the Bush administration announced last week that wolves will be removed from the endangered species list in March. To many, this is a proud moment in preservation: After being reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, the wolves thrived, growing from a population of only 66 to about 1,500 today. Those who want to keep the wolves protected, though, insist that defeat is being snatched from the jaws of victory: Now that the wolves' recovery has been declared complete, the three states they live in—Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho—will allow them to be hunted again starting this fall. U.S. News spoke with Ed Bangs, the gray wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who has overseen the wolves' remarkable resurgence, about why they are being delisted, how they will respond to hunting—and whether their successful recovery might be applicable to other endangered species.
How did wolves become endangered in the first place?
We deliberately got rid of them. At the turn of the last century, our society had no value for wildlife. We got rid of all the deer, the elk, the bison, the moose, all the large predators. One of the first tasks given by Congress in the 1910s to my agency, which used to be called the U.S. Biological Survey, was to kill the last wolves in the western United States. My agency is the one that actually completed the wolf extermination.
Why were they intentionally wiped out?
Wolf management has nothing to do with reality; it's all about the symbolism of the wolves. And at that time, wolves were viewed as the spawn of Satan. People just didn't want them around. A lot of people were subsistence homesteaders, and you can imagine if you had 10 sheep, and wolves came along at night and killed them all, what a huge blow that would be to you. The last pups were killed in 1924.
So what changed? When a few wolves were spotted moving into the United States from Canada in the 1980s, people began pushing to bring wolves back to Yellowstone.
The West changed. At one time, Montana and Wyoming was pretty much just ranches—that was it. Now, you think about Earth Day and environmental awareness, the Endangered Species Act [which was passed in 1966]—the attitude of people changed. And the people that came here, came here for public lands, they came for wildlife, they came for clean air and water, and as a consequence wolves weren't viewed only as a negative.
Tens of thousands of wolves live just north of the border in Canada. Why was it necessary to have them here in the United States, too?
There are three reasons to have wolves around: One of them is symbolism. You're interviewing me about wolves, not red-backed voles. People find wolves fascinating, and having wolves in the world's first national park, Yellowstone, was a huge symbolic thing. The second reason is personal experience. The first time I ever heard a wolf howl, I was 15 years old in Alaska. I can still remember it. If you love the out of doors and wildlands, seeing or hearing wolves is really a positive. There's a poem that goes something like, "What whittled the antelope so swift but the wolf's tooth." If you love elk and deer or any of these animals, you're looking at the handiwork of wolves over tens of thousands of years. Every part of Yellowstone is affected by the relationships between these animals. Elk that are being hunted by wolves behave like wild animals. Elk that aren't hunted by large predators act like livestock. They stand around and overgraze. With wolves there, the system is wilder.
So wolves are actually good for the ecosystem?
They have a dramatic impact on wildlife diversity and ecosystem function. Ecologically, if you're the kind of animal—and there's tons of these—that lives on dead stuff, wolves provide elk carcasses scattered throughout the landscape on a year-round basis. So if you're a bald eagle, golden eagle, wolverine, coyote, bear, chickadee, raven, scrub-jay—that's a whole web of life supported by these large top predators. Wolves change all these other animals' behavior.
So why allow them to be hunted again?
You have to realize regulated hunting is a conservation tool. This is not the 1880s of, like, "Yahoo! Load up the truck and poison everything!" We could never even think about having wolves unless the states hadn't already restored the deer, the elk, and the other competitors, like mountain lions and black bears. I think the states have certainly earned our trust.
How do you know that 1,500 wolves is a viable population—that wolves "will always be there?"
In 2002, I surveyed 80 scientists around the world and asked them what they thought about this. What we came up with was that if you have a population that never went below 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs—which is a successfully reproducing wolf pack—per state, for three successive years, that would be a viable recovered population.