Along with coyotes, weasels, skunks, jackrabbits, raccoons and European starlings, the endangered gray wolf should be weary after the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) granted permits for up to 500 hunters – some even as young as 10 years old – to compete on 3 million acres of land for three days beginning in January 2015 in a bid to see who can kill the most prey.
The competition, officially called the “predator derby,” prompted two lawsuits by environmental groups including Defenders of Wildlife and Wildearth Guardians, asking federal judges to put an end to this killing spree before it even has a chance to start.
“They’re treated like grass that needs to be mowed down,” Suzanne Stone, Idaho spokeswoman for Defenders of Wildlife who has been studying wolves for more than 30 years, told The Guardian.
“This has gone so far above and beyond what most people consider ethical, even hunters,” she added.
Are Wolves More Harmful Than Helpful?
The dispute between western ranchers and wildlife advocates has been an ongoing one the last several years, with little hope in sight of a compromise.
“The whole issue became very polarized,” added Mike Keckler, a spokesman for the Idaho department of fish and game.
Ranchers, particularly those a part of Idaho’s 240,000-head sheep industry, believe that taking out gray wolves is in their right to protect their livestock, as well as prevent competition with humans.
“[They are] a bunch of urbanites who don’t have any clue, don’t have the knowledge and wisdom and experience that we do,” Steve Alder, executive director of Idaho for Wildlife, which organized the derby, said of those opposed to the killings. “They don’t understand our lives, they don’t understand where meat comes from.”
Just last month ranchers in Catron County, N.M. were outraged to find that wolves are setting a record as the main killers of cattle this year. Catron County, which borders eastern Arizona, was one of the first areas where Mexican gray wolves – a subspecies numbering at a mere 83 individuals – were released as part of a recovery effort.
And while that’s all well and good for the wolves, ranchers are a little less than pleased.
“The negative effects to livestock producers caused by Mexican Wolves are a wide spectrum not addressed and/or ignored by the US Fish and Wildlife Service,” wrote Jess Carey, lead author behind a report on the impact of wolves in the area.
Carey also pointed out that over the course of the study, five ranches lost a total of 651 head of cattle valued at more than $382,000.
In another instance, a pack of six wolves roaming in Canada’s Elk Island National Park were killed after cows were “ripped open from one end to the other,” the National Post reported.
Such measures are deemed necessary by livestock owners are others who are trying desperately to protect their animals.
“If something isn’t done in the off-season, there will be next to nobody willing to put cattle back in there next summer, including myself,” added hunter Dan Brown, president of the Blackfoot Grazing Association.
It is pressure from hunters such as Brown that makes the situation of the endangered gray wolves especially prickly. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in recent years has lifted protections for the animals in the western Great Lakes and the Northern Rockies, only to have them reinstated after backlash from wildlife advocates.
Why They Matter
Though they once nearly disappeared from the lower 48 states, today wolves including the gray wolf (Canis lupis) have returned to the Great Lakes, northern Rockies and Southwestern United States.
There are an estimated 7,000 to 11,200 gray wolves in Alaska, 3,700 in the Great Lakes region and 1,675 in the Northern Rockies, according to Defenders of Wildlife.
But they weren’t always on an upsurge. These predators may have once spanned a whopping two-thirds of the United States, but by the mid 1930s their numbers dwindled due to hunting and trapping by humans. Not until just recently have they shown signs of recovery, with a lone gray wolf recently spotted at the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the first of its kind seen at the park in decades, offering conservationists a glimmer of hope for this beautiful species.
The comeback can be credited in part to the reintroduction program created in 1995 by the federal government.
Gray wolves actually play a key role in maintaining ecosystems, and aren’t always such a nuisance as many ranchers think. They help keep deer and elk populations in check, which can benefit many other plant and animal species. The carcasses of their prey also help to redistribute nutrients and provide food for other wildlife species, like grizzly bears and scavengers.
For now, gray wolves can be found roaming in the states of Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, with the population in Wyoming recently restored to the endangered species list. In the remaining states, gray wolves are monitored, but federal protection is seen as non-essential, according to the FWS.
Not to Worry
But environmentalists may not even need to worry for the wolves’ wellbeing since Alder doesn’t even expect the derby to encounter wolves. C. lupis like to roam from the tundra to woodlands, forests, grasslands and deserts, so the fact that they travel across long distances may make these elusive animals difficult to catch.
What’s more, these animals aren’t even highest on hunters’ kill list.
“There are very limited numbers of people who go out looking specifically for wolves,” Keckler explained to The Guardian. “A lot of folks are concerned about the hunting of big predators like that, but we also have a very healthy mountain lion population in Idaho. We have a very healthy black bear population and they have been classified as big game just like wolves for many, many years.”
Regardless of this reassurance, environmental groups show no sign of letting up. The BLM has already received more than 56,000 comments after opening the derby plan to the public, only 10 of which were in support of the competition.