Whether feared or revered, demonized or deified, everyone seems to have an opinion about wolves. In Western mythology and fairytales, wolves were depicted as unpredictable, cunning beasts. They symbolized the dangers of the wild, convincing children not to wander into the woods. Wolves have been used in early Christian legends to represent the dark side of man. In some Native American cultures, wolves were thought to hold other worldly powers, making them sacred. Wolves have been part of peoples' written and oral histories all over the world.
"Some people think they are the spawn of Satan and others think they are God's chosen ones," says Ed Bangs, leader of the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Bangs is an undisputed guru in wolf biology and a key leader in the reintroduction of gray wolves in the western United States, including parts of North Idaho and Western Montana. Bangs also knows a thing or two about people and their love/hate relationship with the creatures that hold essentially the same DNA as man's best friend, the dog.
"What I find [in the wolf controversy] is that none of this stuff is about wolves," Bangs muses. "It's about the symbolism of wolves. You just hear all these human values being debated."
He's speaking generally, but Bangs' comments aptly describe the latest in a long series of quarrels among federal agencies, ranchers and wildlife conservationists.
The most recent wolf quandary takes place within the boundaries of the Sawtooth National Recreational Area (SNRA), a 756,000-acre expanse within Sawtooth National Forest, near Ketchum, Idaho. Wolves released along the Salmon River in the wolf reintroduction project throughout the '90s have made their way into the SNRA. The problem is that the natural predators are finding livestock grazing in the fields. Parts of the SNRA's public land are leased to ranchers, who graze their sheep and cattle there.
The USFWS, in keeping with its wolf management program, kills wolves -- sometimes killing entire packs -- that attack livestock.
But the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), a conservation group based in Boise, along with the Idaho Conservation League (ICL), say that executing an endangered species in order to protect livestock grazing on public lands isn't right.
"WWP [and ICL] filed suit against the management of the [SNRA]," Bangs says. "They allege that wildlife takes priority over other things."
Bangs, despite being a self-proclaimed wolf lover, says wolf management is an essential part of the wolf reintroduction process -- and a legal one.
"I object to killing wolves, but it's part of the deal. It's part of a legal rule-making process made in 1994," Bangs explains. "We made this commitment to reintroduce wolves, but to make it so they didn't affect too many people. It was a huge deal that took two years of open analysis and planning. The public was involved; we got 180,000 signatures and held 130 [public] meetings. Everyone knows there's going to be property damage, and there has to be management of that."
But the WWP took its case against the management of the SNRA to court, claiming that killing wolves that kill livestock may be a part of the wolf management plan, but it shouldn't happen in the SNRA, a place designated for wildlife, not cattle and sheep.
"We were disgusted with the killing of wolves within the SNRA and nearby because of the deaths of a few calves and a few sheep," says John Marvel, executive director of WWP. "Livestock are creating a problem with wildlife, and that's not legal. Public lands [are] a place where livestock grazing is inappropriate.
"We knew that the Forest Service had failed to manage livestock appropriately, and that failure is what led to the killings of these wolves. Eighteen wolves have either been killed or removed [in the SNRA], which is the highest number of any [single] location in Montana, Idaho or Wyoming."
Though the wolf management plan has already undergone litigation in the past and prevailed, Judge B. Lynn Winmill, with the Federal District Court for Idaho, ruled that the USFWS could no longer execute wolves for attacking livestock in the SNRA.
"We feel the judge was correct," Marvel says. "The fact is, the wolf reintroduction [project] failed to consider the law that created the SNRA. Therefore it could not override that legislation, which is very clear: Wildlife has precedence over livestock inside the SNRA."
"The judge reached over his grasp," Bangs argues. "The bottom line is, under the wolf management rules, we said we could [execute wolves who kill livestock] on public and private land."
The case is now on appeal, and last week Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden issued a formal brief to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in support of the USFWS right to enact wolf management in the SNRA.
In 1994, the first wolves to be reintroduced into the western United States were released in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. Since then, about 150 of them have been killed by the very agency that brought them back from extinction. In Idaho alone, 38 have been killed by the USFWS. Bangs that says the number of wolves now living in the western United States is between 700 and 800.
"The population is still expanding, even with that level of killing," says Bangs. "It's growing rapidly. We're actually looking to remove them from the Endangered Species Act. It's time for states to start managing wolves."
Marvel warns against that, however. "That's controversial and subject to litigation," he says. "The [USFWS] proposal to de-list [take off of the endangered species list] includes California, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, where there are no permanent wolf packs. Even though the wolves have increased dramatically, the fact is that wolves have not recovered because there are no wolves in places like Colorado."
Even Bangs concedes that wolves are still in imminent danger from people, noting that "85 percent of wolf deaths are caused by people, whether accidental, intentional, legal or illegal."
And as for executing wolves that kill livestock, no other predator gets that sentence.
"It's just for wolves because we just reintroduced them. [There are] more management and experimental population rules," explains Bangs, who says a wolf can be executed for as little as one livestock attack, depending on the circumstances.
But is killing wolves that kill livestock a necessary practice? Or, as Marvel suggests, is it just mitigation for ranchers who harbor hatred for a natural predator? Statistics show that wolves aren't really a rancher's worst nightmare.
"In Idaho, before we ever put wolves there, livestock producers raised half a million livestock," Bangs says. "Each year, livestock producers said they lost 12,300 cattle and a little over 9,300 sheep to a host of problems. Only 2 percent are due to predators. We expected that a recovered wolf population would kill about 10 cattle and about 57 sheep a year on average. Wolves are just a tiny drop in the bucket."
But Bangs adds that even if wolves don't pose a statistical threat to ranchers, it's still a big concern when wolves are added to the already long list of existing threats to livestock.
"If [wolves] learn that [livestock] can be killed and eaten, they'll start to hunt more accurately for them. If a wolf pup grows up seeing his pack eat nothing but antelope, he'll know that's a food source. It can get worse if you let it go on."
Marvel says the management needs to be with people, not wolves. "It's well past time to stop appeasing ranchers. The reality is most of these livestock producers do not use public land and their livestock will never be affected by wolves," Marvel says.
Both Bangs and Marvel appreciate wolves and agree that the reintroduction plan helps wildlife. But they are still fighting, like so many before them, about how to handle wolves and their interaction with people's property.
"They're so much like us," Bangs says. "The two groups with the greatest land [migration] in the world are wolves and people. It's very easy to project yourself onto wolves."