Finding a Balance

The grey wolf is a highly controversial and debatable topic. People have different opinions and viewpoints when talking about what should be done to protect them. The grey wolf population used to be distributed all over the country before the European colonists came to America. Wolves were killed and driven to near extinction. This made me wonder what it was that had led humans to kill that many wolves at the time. For this very topic, looking at the reason why wolves were killed in the first place seems to be a proper start.

When European colonization began in America, the wolf was seen as an enemy to humans. “The livestock, such as cattle and sheep, that they depended on for food and economic resources was potentially threatened by the overwhelming presence of wolves and other predators.” (Missionwolf, 2018) This was the main reason wolves were killed at the time and is still one of the main reasons people are concerned about. Once the wolf was added to the endangered species list, its population started to grow. Moreover, the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone from Canada was a huge success. This has led to a proposal to remove them from the endangered species list. It was claimed that “the currently listed entities do not meet the definitions of a threatened species or endangered species under the Act due to recovery” (Fish and Wildlife Service, 2019) Even though the number of wolves across the country has recovered, it is still nowhere near it used to be. So, I believe, the next question is whether it is possible to reintroduce wolves to where they used to live, or at least close to. If we look at many places wolves used to inhabit, they are no longer suitable for wolves. There are many constructions built, and what was once a wolf’s habitat has become an urban area. This could be tough on the wolf population itself, let alone the challenge of the wolf’s existence near human residence areas.

The reintroduction in Yellowstone should also be considered. It was a success bringing wolves from Canada since the wolf population in America has increased due to the reintroduction. If we look at a worldwide level, wolves are distributed largely in Canada and Russia and still far from extinction. This allows other possibilities of wolf reintroduction in the future. Also, with the remaining wolf’s current numbers and the state’s management plans the wolf is no longer close to extinction in America. And its number is likely to be steady as time goes on. (Fish and Wildlife Service, 2019) I believe that many people would agree that wolves should be protected and not killed for unnecessary reasons. However, the question is, in this changing world, to what extent we should go for protection, and how it will affect the livelihoods of people in the area.

Unwelcome Guests

Predators have never been popular among humans. In ancient times they competed with us for food when hunting, or even hunted us. When humans began to from agricultural societies and domesticate livestock, those same predators would once again take our food, endangering our lives. While civilization as come a long way, but in many places, such as Oregon, a large portion of the population is still agriculture based, and still hold the same view of predators, and wolves are no acceptation.

The difference is, this time around, humanity has not had to deal with these predators, with wolves having been gone for a long time. Their reintroduction to Oregon is not seen as a return to the norm, but a deviation from it, one that can threaten livelihoods, or people. Already we have seen these 158 wolves removed from Oregon’s endangered species list, with the state opening doors that could lead to hunting and trapping of these animals (CBD, 2020), and these wolves place on the federal list is also being challenged (ODFW, 2019). If these protections are removed, I believe that there will be a push to, essentially, legally allow these populations to be decimated in the form of hunting and trapping.

The wolf populations are not large enough to handle that sort of treatment at this time. they have yet to move into the remaining 90% of suitable habitat found in the state, and lets be honest, 158 individuals is not a lot of wolves. 158 people in a building is a lot, 158 people in a town isn’t much, 158 people in a city makes it abandoned, and 158 people in a state the size of Oregon makes in uninhabited. Trying to justify hunting or trapping as a form of population control on a population that doesn’t need it is ridiculous, with the main motivation largely being “wolves are threatening livestock and livelihoods, so they need to be kept at a minimum population”.

Simply put, I see the push to delist the wolves of Oregon not as a sign that they are doing well and no longer need protection, but as an effort to appease a public that doesn’t want them around, and is slowly stripping away their protections as a peace offering, one that could, and would, damage these small populations.

Protecting the Voiceless

When it comes to protecting endangered species, we need to look at the scientific facts; the wolf population has struggled to reach the optimal population numbers for this keystone species. Though the population has increased within the last 25 years through reintroduction, wolves have not reached a high enough number to be delisted. Delisting the wolves will risk losing the progression made with these conservation laws and restrictions. It is simply too soon to delist wolves from the Endangered Species List.

Human’s agricultural and rural progressions continue to overlap with wolf habitat perimeters, ultimately bringing us to why this species was added on the Endangered Species List and exactly why they shouldn’t be removed too soon. Without these laws and regulations this battle between the ethical balance of nature and progress is one that nature will continue to lose. As stewards of the land, it is our duty to protect a balanced ecosystem.

Wolves fulfill their role as a keystone species by keeping elk and deer population leveled through predation. Wolf recovery has only reached 5% of their historic range (Granshaw L., 2013), in Oregon alone in 2015 there were 78 known wolves (Oregon Wild), increasing to 158 wolves in 2019 (ODFW, 2020). The yearly population has grown about 10% in the last 3 years alone (Weiss A., 2020) despite the decrease in conflict over livestock, I believe delisting now would not be in the species best interest due to the slow population growth over a long period of time.

Wolf recovery is still in its beginning stages, if we do not keep these conservation plans in place we are likely to end up back in stage one.

Protection is Still in Place Without ESA

The delisting of wolves from the Endangered Species Act is a very controversial topic with many pros and cons. However, delisting wolves may be the better decision in the long run. Efforts to repopulate wolves have proven to be very successful in the past. Reintroduction of populations is a technique done in the past with wolves in Yellowstone National Park that was successful and actually boosted the wolf population (Archibald, 2005). This same technique can be done again in Oregon to increase their population. Along with this technique, ranchers and farmers can work with wildlife organizations to find alternative methods that do not harm or injure wolves. The main threat to wolves has always been human and wolf conflict, and there are ways to reduce that conflict as long as the methods are easy and can protect the livestock and human as well.

The current population of wolves right now is not close to extinction, and over time their numbers will grow (Fish and Wildlife Service, 2019). Even though they may be not be protected under the ESA anymore, the states are still able to establish laws that can help protect wolves from being harmed. Wolves definitely should be protected from hunting and killing, but they are not in as much danger as other species that are on the brink of extinction.

Listening to Science is Essential to Saving the Wolves

When I turn on the National Geographic channel, there is always a scene of the predator chasing its prey. However, for the past 20 minutes, the story was about the prey and its family causing viewers to root for the prey: the underdog. However, the story does not include that the predators are suffering from habitat loss and other human-impacts. In our case, the predators are the underdogs. Wolves in particular are facing dire consequences caused by human actions and political debates. Wolves are often portrayed as the villains in stories and movies, and that viewpoint translates to real life with ranchers protecting livestock and hunters protecting their sources. The status of wolves is suffering due to a constant debate of how much protection they should receive, which, sadly, prioritizes politics over science.

The Endangered Species Act was formed in 1964 to provide guidelines to protecting animals in a time of human dominance. With this act also came a list of endangered and threatened species, which has grown longer over time. In 1974, gray wolves were among the first species listed as endangered. Since then, wolves across the U.S. have faced the consequence of premature delistings guided by political decisions. The Northern Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf was stripped of ESA protection when delisted in 2008 because they met the recovery goals created with a lack of scientific evidence (Bergstrom et al., 2009). The recovery goals required a small number of breeding pairs (10, sustained for 3 consecutive years), but the major flaw was the lack of requiring genetic connectivity between the wolves from different areas. Genetically isolated populations cannot maintain a healthy genetic flow due to inbreeding, decreasing the genetic diversity (Hendrick, 1996). These compromises in the recovery plan were favoring the politics of livestock ranching.

A similar experience occurred in Oregon when ESA protection of wolves was removed in 2015 by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, according to Oregon Wild. Again, this was done prematurely as numbers were too low and the Wolf Conservation and Management Plan—the only remaining protection for the wolves—was softened too much to maintain support of ranchers and hunters. The plan lowered the threshold for when states can kill wolves, removed requirements for non-lethal confilct deterrence, and opened door towards public hunting and trapping.

Wolves are not receiving the protection they should be due to people in charge attempting to please the opposers while trying to protect the wolves. Recovery goals should not be lowered to get more people on board; they should be based on scientific studies and rules that promote a healthy population that includes a healthy number of individuals and promotes genetic connectivity naturally. While there are reasons to control the harmful impact of wolves, they still need protection from the people taking their land and their food to avoid the removal of gray wolves from existence.