Freedom to Roam: A Rancher and an Environmentalist Search for Common Ground on Wolves (Part 1)
The presidential election last fall gave many environmentalists new hope, but the Obama administration has since outraged many gray wolf advocates by upholding a Bush-era decision to take them off the endangered species list in over half a dozen states.
After being nearly wiped out in most of the country, recovery efforts in the last two decades have helped the wolf population in the Northern Rockies rebound to what is now an estimated 1,645 wolves or more. Federal officials – and many ranchers and politicians who have long complained about the impact of wolves on livestock and big game herds – say that's enough. But some environmentalists strongly disagree, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). They recently joined other groups in filing a lawsuit in Montana that could temporarily block the resumption of regulated wolf hunts there.
[Female Mexican gray wolf yearling born in 2007 at the California Wolf Center. Photo: Roy Toft, California Wolf Center]
Amidst what has often been cast as a bitter fight between two sides, the NRDC’s Senior Wildlife Advocate Louisa Willcox and local Montana rancher Becky Weed have been working with several ranching groups to come up with new solutions. As a special feature of our current environmental campaign, Freedom to Roam, Patagonia decided to interview these individuals to highlight their willingness to engage in constructive dialogue and search for new alternatives to old environmental problems. We also wanted to understand more about a complicated issue many of us care deeply about. Their answers, provided by email, are below:
Q: Was the Obama administration’s decision on the Northern Rockies gray wolves a surprise, given the expected change in approach of the administration on environmental issues?
Becky Weed (rancher): The administration’s decision was not shocking, although I was a little surprised that it came as quickly as it did. I do not see this decision as a sign that the Obama administration is in lockstep with the previous administration by any stretch of the imagination. The more revealing steps will come as we see how the delisting details are handled now that a delisting process is underway.
Louisa Willcox (NRDC): The Department of Interior’s decision to delist Northern Rockies gray wolves was a big disappointment. The decision was announced in March, before the administration had put key high-level officials in the Department of Interior and a new director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in place. We do not believe they adequately reviewed the Bush rule, which has significant problems - problems so severe that we are challenging the decision in court
Q: In its decision, the Interior Department cites the fact that the numbers of wolves have far exceeded the minimum numbers set for population recovery, except in Wyoming. Do you think population numbers are still too low?
Becky Weed (rancher): I have to say first that I am resistant to a primary focus on wolf numbers alone. Certainly absolute numbers are important, but cannot be considered in isolation.
I don’t think that the numbers are too low “for population recovery”; it would be implausible to make that claim considering that we got to this current population in the Northern Rockies from just a few dozen wolves that were imported a fairly short time ago. Indeed the proliferation of wolves in both numbers and geographic spread has exceeded many biologists’ predictions. The stickier discussion comes with how we do or not define the criteria for success in the larger sense, and how much of that assessment can be made on the basis of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) alone. I think it is reasonable to say that the current numbers have exceeded the minimum required for recovery, but that doesn’t mean that all the necessary work and learning is done that we will need to do to achieve sustainable, functional, and tolerable recovery.
There are genuine concerns about connectivity among populations and long-term genetic diversity that many people share, but there is disagreement about whether that can be better assured pre- or post-delisting. Holding Montana and Idaho hostage to the problematic Wyoming policies at this stage of the game, would put at risk the considerable progress that has been made in those two states, and would further damage the already-frayed credibility of wolf advocates who have a reputation for moving the target of the ESA.
Louisa Willcox (NRDC): Yes, wolf population numbers are still too low. Over 250 scientists commented that the minimum levels set for wolf recovery by the Interior Department are far too low to ensure the long-term health of Northern Rockies wolves, including maintaining interbreeding among the three subpopulations in the region. According to top experts, at least several thousand wolves are needed to sustain a healthy and resilient wolf population in the Northern Rockies.
It is also incorrect to state that the number of wolves far exceeds the federal government’s wolf recovery standards. While federal officials maintain that 300 wolves are necessary to achieve recovery, their standard includes ensuring adequate genetic exchange, which is often ignored. One of the reasons a federal judge struck down the prior wolf delisting rule in the Northern Rockies last year was because the federal government chose the part of its recovery standard that it liked and ignored the genetic exchange requirement.
As discussed above, FWS has stated that a minimum population of only 300 wolves – less than 1/5 of today’s population in the region – is all that is necessary to keep wolves off the endangered species list. While FWS officials assert that state management of Northern Rockies wolves will likely result in a population of 900-1250 wolves, rather than the 300 wolves the delisting rule allows, the agency has not cited any commitments by the states to maintain the population above the federally established minimums.
Q: Are there other ways, other than listing them under the Endangered Species Act, to protect wolves and allow humans and wolves to live together?
Becky Weed (rancher): Yes, there are, and I would go so far as to say that it is not only possible, but essential, that some of those other ways of fostering coexistence be explored, cultivated, and expanded. The ESA is a piece of legislation designed to protect endangered species; it does not purport to carry the full weight of the complex and rich task of learning to live with any particular species over the long haul.
Since our society is pretty new at this goal of protecting wolves rather than exterminating them, it stands to reason that we haven’t refined all the mechanisms for protecting them, but significant efforts are underway. Montana’s Wolf Management plan is one such effort, and I suspect that a mosaic of federal, state, and even more local mechanisms will come into play, both inside and outside government. Some of the most interesting efforts are non-governmental approaches to preventing conflict with livestock, so that there is less need for wolf ‘protection’ per se . The ESA will remain a backdrop to this learning process, but I don’t want it to become an obstacle.
Louisa Willcox (NRDC): The culture of the West is changing. We need to rethink the way we interact with wolves, and wildlife in general, in the region. People come from around the world to catch a glimpse of our world-class wildlife – that is a fantastic boon to the economy, and the thrill of a lifetime to many – but it has not translated to a change in the attitude among the powers-that-be around here. Until we work out some more equitable arrangements to take the needs of wildlife AND people, including ranchers and other stakeholders into account, I am afraid that federal legal protection will continue to be necessary.
The good news is that we are very close to recovery of wolves in the Northern Rockies. We would, without question, support the removal of endangered species protections once the numbers are viable, the subpopulations are connected, and post-delisting management programs are adequate. We are almost there, but defective state laws and plans that will lead to the killing of hundreds of wolves will push recovery further back. As such, we will continue to fight for ESA protections.
Q: Are there other ways, other than allowing the killing of wolves, to protect the interests of ranchers?
Becky Weed (rancher): There is no single solution to protect the interests of ranchers, just as there is no single solution to protect wolves. If we take that “integrated pest management” view, we can explore a variety of tools. These include, but are not limited to: Monitoring wolves movements and modifying livestock movements so as to minimize confrontation; selecting and directing livestock to encourage savvier livestock and people; supporting compensation program(s) (see below); supporting price premiums for ranchers who accommodate wolves; exploring the possibility that a hunt could be used as a management tool to minimize confrontation; considering grass banking and other cooperative range management efforts that could enable ranchers to deal with wolf/ungulate migrations collectively rather than individually … the list goes on.
Exploration of some of these approaches is already underway. I believe that the onset of delisting will improve the chances of developing more such tools.
Louisa Willcox (NRDC): Yes. There are many new, exciting and creative methods that have been proven to avoid and reduce livestock-wolf conflicts, such as electric fencing, fladry (flagging hung along fence lines to deter wolves from corrals), and “rag” boxes which set off noises that scare off wolves. There are old tried and true methods too, like night penning or the use of guard dogs and shepherding, which can help livestock operators keep their stock away from wolves. But there is not nearly enough emphasis on non-lethal methods by the government and some livestock operators.
It is possible to live more peaceably among wolves. Indeed, wolves have lived among farmers for hundreds of years in Europe, and farmers there have figured out ways to protect their stock without killing each and every wolf that wanders near. In fact, Europe is where guard dogs such as the Pyrenees were bred to protect livestock. At this juncture, it is important to share information about how best to resolve conflicts with ranchers who operate in wolf country. Farmers and ranchers have a lot they can teach each other about coexistence with wolves.
We need to remember that wolves in central Idaho and Yellowstone have only been back for 15 years, and they have only been back in the Glacier area for about 24 years. We need on-the-ground pilot projects designed to learn from experience. Wolves are smart, and there is no silver bullet to avoid problems with livestock; a combination of practices have to be explored to see what works best in areas that are different socially, geographically, and ecologically.
Q: One of the segments of residents most opposed to the Endangered Species Act listing are the ranchers who work in the area, due to the threat of wolves to sheep and cattle. Are there other groups?
Becky Weed (rancher): Some members of the hunting community favor delisting and are very anti-wolf, and I think some favor delisting but are not particularly anti-wolf. In some areas wolves have significantly altered ungulate populations and distribution, and depending on your perspective, that can be seen as positive or negative. It is important to be cautious about assuming that people who favor delisting are necessarily anti-wolf. Some of us believe that in order to develop a mindset in which wolves are part of the landscape – part of both the risk and reward of living and working in this region, we (not just ranchers, but everybody), must get more sophisticated about envisioning, and practicing, what a post-delisting world can look like. Simply clinging onto listed status doesn’t get us to viable long term coexistence.
Louisa Willcox (NRDC): Some sportsmen and sportsmen groups like the Safari Club believe that wolves compete with them for elk and other big game animals. But, with over 300,000 elk in the region, big game levels are at record highs, and there is plenty of big game to be shared among wolves and hunters. Wolves can make hunting more challenging, as they move elk around the landscape more. So, hunters may have to work harder, even though there are more elk in the region. Some hunters believe wolves actually help make them better hunters.
In addition, there are other groups and elected officials who are doctrinally opposed to wolves, because they associate wolves with the federal government and federal laws like the Endangered Species Act, which they resent. Because of the many layers of symbolic meanings of wolves, people may be hostile to wolves for reasons that have little to do with wolves or what they do to make a living on the landscape.
Q: Is it possible to recognize and bring together all of the different interests and concerns?
Becky Weed (rancher): Undoubtedly there will always be some outliers (individuals and groups) who don’t want to come together on anything. That’s okay by me. Sometimes the fringes enlighten the boring but fundamental middle. But I do think it is possible to find substantial common ground among many of the major players that will help enable coexistence. We will only achieve this if we set ourselves up to learn as we go, and adapt as we learn. We won’t “come together” simply by sitting at tables and conferring, because there are too many conflicting goals and values to make it that easy. But the conferring can be valuable nonetheless – to help us set expectations, develop empathy, design experiments, agree on monitoring and response, erect sidebars. I think I can say with some certainty that we won’t “come together” or even achieve much conservation “staying apart”, if we expend most of our energy in courtrooms and their ancillary press coverage.
Louisa Willcox (NRDC): Yes. It is possible, and right now it is critically important to try to bring together the different interests and concerns around the wolf issue in some new and constructive ways. Only by bringing together the varied interests in ways that are honest, fair, practical, and respectful can we develop a different climate and new relationships that could help resolve conflicts with wolves – and each other. This needs to happen outside conventional governmental processes at a grassroots level.
We are trying right now to explore some new possibilities with ranchers here in the region, to work together on issues of common interest around wolves; we are very excited about the prospects.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview, coming soon.
Update: Part 2 is now live.
In related news, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service published this statement on their Web site yesterday: "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reached a settlement agreement in a lawsuit challenging its 2009 rule removing Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes. The Service has agreed to provide an additional opportunity for public comment on the rule. Until the rule is finalized, wolves in the Western Great Lakes will again be protected by the Endangered Species Act once the court approves this agreement."
Questions and Answers (PDF)