A nationwide collection of biologists has called on the U.S. Department of Interior to restore Endangered Species Act protection to gray wolves, in light of recent state actions against the animals.
The 115 signers include at least eight in Montana, including former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gray wolf deputy recovery coordinator Joe Fontaine and Carter Niemeyer, who led wolf trapping and control operations in Montana for 26 years. Natural history scientists and authors Doug Chadwick and Cristina Eisenberg of Montana are also on the list. Michigan Technological University distinguished professor John Vucetich and Ohio State University professor Jeremy Bruskotter led the effort.
“Some argue against reinstating federal protection on the grounds that doing so would unleash broad backlash in the form of eroding support for the ESA among American citizens,” the scientists wrote to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and FWS Principal Deputy Director Martha Williams. “However, scientific evidence indicates that Americans’ support for the ESA is strong, has remained strong over time, and is not reduced when the ESA is implemented. Overall, the best-available science indicates that the American public expects the Service to lead us toward wolf recovery.”
The letter comes in response to former President Donald Trump’s move to delist gray wolves throughout the Lower 48 states in January, coupled with state actions in Idaho, Montana and Wisconsin. Last week, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed four bills liberalizing wolf killing, including measures removing limits of how many wolves a licensed hunter can kill; use of snares, spotlights and bait for hunting; and permission for private groups to reimburse wolf hunters for expenses.
In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little signed bills allowing wolf killing from motorized parachutes, ATVs or snowmobiles year-round without limits in much of the state, with the stated intention of reducing the population there by more than 90%. Wisconsin authorized hound-hunting of wolves, which exceeded the state’s harvest goal by almost double within days.
In the letter, the authors note that wolves once inhabited most of the continent, but now have no secure habitat anywhere but the northern Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes regions. And despite the federal decision to delist them nationwide, the Fish and Wildlife Service has no nationwide recovery plan.
“Wolves fulfill their ecological functions, in large part, by limiting the adverse consequences of overabundant prey, including disease transmission and the ecological and economic damage to rangeland, forests and agricultural lands,” the authors wrote. “The best-available science indicates that wolves’ ability to fulfill these ecological functions is impaired or prevented when premature delisting enables state governments to sanction high rates of human-caused mortality.”
Wolf opponents maintain the animals make it harder for hunters to kill deer and elk, and impose costs on ranchers for extra protection to keep wolves from killing their cattle and sheep and other animals. In 2020, the Montana Livestock Loss Board compensated ranchers for 120 domestic animals killed by wolves, along with 107 animals killed by grizzly bears and 58 killed by mountain lions for a total of $198,200.
In 2019, according to the most recent data available from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Montana sheep ranchers lost 17,000 head to predators, with 62% of that caused by coyotes. Bad weather killed another 19,100 sheep and lambs, compared with 300 attributed to wolves.
A 2018 study of wolf-livestock problems in Montana found that while wolf kills were increasing in some areas, “targeted removal, but not public harvest, significantly reduced the recurrent presence of depredations.”
Niemeier, one of the letter signers who managed wolf conflicts for the federal Wildlife Services and FWS, said the new push to eliminate wolves would have bad consequences for both recreationists and taxpayers.
“It’s very disappointing getting this far and seeing what it’s devolving into,” Niemeier said. “I spent my career working in the field as a trapper, catching and relocating and killing wolves. It’s a tall order. Telling public we’re going to kill 90 percent of them, well, good luck brother. That’s no small price tag, and turning it over to the mercenaries, well, there’s going to be a lot of collateral damage.”
The Idaho-based Foundation for Wildlife Management successfully lobbied the Montana Legislature to let private groups reimburse wolf hunters for their expenses. Members of the organization refused to let a reporter attend an organizational meeting in Trout Creek on May 6 and would not answer questions about its fundraising efforts.
The Biden administration has indicated the gray wolf delisting decision is under official review.