Most Native American tribes revered them; the early Christian church demonized them. Their DNA is virtually identical to man's best friend - the loyal dog. But despite being second only to humans in their ability to adapt in extreme climates, wolves are possibly the most misunderstood creatures that have ever existed.
"The first [wolf] bounty on this continent was from the colony in Plymouth Rock," says Ed Bangs, leader of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Wolf Recovery Program in the northern Rockies since its inception in the mid-'90s. "Wolves were intensely persecuted - it goes beyond any logic."
By the turn of the century, only a handful of wolves remained in the lower 48 states. In 1973, the federal government, which once offered bounties to hunters who killed wolves, declared the species endangered and began funneling money into protecting them. About 20 years later, under the management of the FWS, 35 gray wolves were brought in from Canada, tagged with tracking devices and released into remote areas of Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Despite uproar from ranchers, those initial wolf packs have thrived; there are now about 760 wolves throughout Idaho, Montana and Wyoming -- far more than what the Fish and Wildlife Service predicted. Bangs says the nation has gotten its money's worth from the $17 million spent on wolves since 1974.
"It's a successful recovery program, and it was dirt-cheap," he says. "In Yellowstone National Park, if you sell hotel rooms, cappuccinos and T-shirts, wolves are putting money into your pocket."
Bangs also says that the wolves are ready to be taken off the endangered species list.
"Human values [about wolves] have changed a lot," Bangs says. "The average person rolls his eyes at both the extreme positions on wolves; ranchers portray them as the spawn of Satan, and hardcore environmentalists portray them as the best thing since sliced bread. Really, they're just animals -- but we expect a lot from them, and people come from all over the world to see them. Thankfully, all the real hysterical stuff is dying off."
But controversy over wolves has flared up again: Removing the animals from the endangered species list is proving to be about as difficult as getting them listed in the first place.
In order to de-list, the state governments of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming had to submit comprehensive wolf management plans to the federal government outlining how wolves will be protected. The FWS issued a response to those plans last January, accepting both Idaho and Montana's, but rejecting Wyoming's because it didn't fully explain how the state would protect the animals from illegal hunting and killing. This set both Idaho and Montana back because the three states are considered a part of the same wolf recovery region. In addition, litigation from wildlife and environmental groups has sparked controversy; several groups are suing the FWS over the fact that when wolves are de-listed in the northern Rockies, where they are thriving, the agency will also de-list wolves in nine other Western states, including California, Nevada and Colorado, where wolf populations haven't made a significant comeback. Critics of the states' plans also say that under state control, it will be possible to obtain permits to hunt wolves. Some wildlife preservationists think it's far too soon to start killing off wolves again.
Until the snafus are resolved, Bangs says the FWS is not recommending that wolves be taken off the endangered species list. Instead, he explains, the FWS, along with Idaho and Montana, have created an amendment to the Endangered Species Act, which allows the states to manage wolves under the supervision of the feds even though the animals are still technically endangered. Both pro- and anti-wolf conservationists are howling about that - one group angry that wolves will be state-managed even though they are still endangered, the other group upset that the animals aren't de-listed yet.
Huffing and Puffing
"The thing about wolves and wolf management is that it has nothing to do with reality," says Bangs. "It's all about human symbolism and value systems - that's what people are arguing over when they argue about wolves. It's amazing how emotional people get about it."
Now that taking wolves off the endangered species list is imminent, hysteria over the animals is on the rise. The public comment period regarding the amendment to the Endangered Species Act ended in May and Bangs says states will begin cooperatively managing wolves with the FWS when he's done sifting through the tens of thousands of public comments.
Some ranchers continue to claim that wolves threaten their livelihoods, despite research showing that wolves kill less livestock and sheep each year than mountain lions, and that wild predators are less of a threat to ranchers' herds than disease. In addition, Defenders of Wildlife, a wildlife advocate organization, compensates ranchers for livestock that have been killed by wolves. Last year, of all the animals that died in the northern Rockies, wolves killed just 64 livestock, 211 sheep and 10 goats - less than 1 percent.
Still, wolves are yet another threat tacked onto a long list of possible problems for ranchers. Through its tracking program, therefore, the FWS exterminates wolves responsible for killing livestock to prevent them from repeating the behavior or teaching it to other wolves in the pack, which is the way wolves learn to hunt. Last year, the FWS exterminated an entire pack of wolves in Idaho after one of its members attacked a rancher's livestock.
Some environmentalists and wildlife advocates occupy the other end of the spectrum, claiming wolves are victims of ignorant viewpoints and need extra protection.
"The recovery is certainly on the right track, but the Bush administration has given the green light to get rid of existing protection for wolves, and at the same time [it's moving] the de-listing process along too hastily, with insufficient protections in place by the states," says Roger Singer, the Sierra Club's regional representative in Idaho. "It's due to political pressure from ranchers and some hunters. The ranchers see wolves as a scapegoat for the environmental groups."
But wolf numbers are much higher than necessary to de-list, and besides, de-listing is still a ways off. Wyoming isn't any closer to an acceptable state management plan; instead of adjusting the plan according to recommendations made by the FWS, the state is planning to sue the government for not accepting the plan as it was written. Even after Wyoming's plan is accepted, it'll take at least one more year before wolves qualify for de-listing.
But Singer says the amendment to the Endangered Species Act that the FWS has made in order for states to manage wolves is as harmful as de-listing. The rule includes an exemption in which ranchers can obtain permits to shoot a wolf legally, "even if it so much as seems to be threatening their livestock," Singer claims. That, say critics of the rule, leaves wolves unprotected against ranchers and hunters. The wording of the rule states that if there is "reasonable belief that attack is imminent," it is legal to kill the wolf.
Defenders of Wildlife believes that the states haven't proven that they will protect wolves.
"If wolves are truly recovered, that's a victory, something everyone should be celebrating," says Suzanne Stone, Rocky Mountain field representative for Defenders of Wildlife. "The problem isn't de-listing wolves, it's weak management plans from the states."
Even though the FWS approved Idaho's wolf management plan, it's been criticized for its vague language regarding wolf protection.
"We're supportive in states managing, even leading, wolf management," Stone notes, "But Idaho's plan does not give comprehensive details as to how the wolves will be managed."
Despite the fact that most of the wolves from the Northern Rockies Wolf Recovery Project reside in central Idaho, and that Idaho's state plan was accepted by the FWS, Singer claims the state doesn't want wolves around.
"From everything we've seen in the Idaho Statehouse, it is the intent of Idaho's leaders to make it easier to get rid of our wolf population and make domestic livestock a more important species than this wild icon of Idaho's natural heritage," he says. "And I think ranchers have undue influence with Western representatives, including Governor Kempthorne."
Mike Journee, spokesman for Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, says any anti-wolf sentiment that once existed among Idaho's leaders has been replaced with a different attitude.
"Elected officials and the government in general were pretty resistant to having wolves reintroduced," Journee concedes. "The wolves were reintroduced anyway -- they're here, they're thriving and there is going to be plenty of oversight to ensure the state management plan being adopted has sufficient safeguards for them. The last thing Kempthorne wants is [for wolves] to be de-listed and then re-listed because of the way the state managed them, so there is incentive to protect wolves."
State representatives point out that it wouldn't be in Idaho's best interest to allow the population to diminish - especially since the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Nez Perce Tribe will receive more than a million dollars a year to make sure wolves stick around, which is far more than the $400,000 or so Bangs says the FWS has spent in each state for each year of the Wolf Recovery Program.
The Nez Perce Tribe, too, is facing challenges as wolf management is shifted from federal to state control. Whereas Idaho initially opted out of participating in the wolf recovery process back in the mid-'90s, the tribe took a hands-on role during that period. Now the tribe is finding itself written out of some of the management practices it's created.
"The tribe has done basically everything," says Keith Lawrence, wildlife program director for the Nez Perce Tribe. "We've been in charge of field efforts since the beginning. The tribe feels like it should be involved in policy decisions with the state, but in parts of the rules [for state-run wolf management] it doesn't recognize tribal authority. We've been doing this for 10 years, and this isn't just something the tribe felt like would be 'fun' and jumped into. It's important to maintain protocols, collecting data in the same way and in the same manner."
State representatives say the Idaho Department of Fish and Game plans to work cooperatively with the tribe. "It's important to have them involved," says Jeff Allen, policy advisor for the Office of Species Conservation for Idaho. "The state plan, as well as Governor Kempthorne, want a role for the tribe - however, that role has been left undefined."
Whether states will handle the newly rekindled wolf populations as carefully as the FWS, and whether wolves will continue to thrive after they're taken off the endangered species list, are two outcomes that remain to be seen.
"People hated them and killed too many, and populations became endangered," Bangs says. "The only way they'd become endangered again is because people hate them."
Though Bangs supports de-listing wolves, he's more optimistic about the wolves' recovery than he is about the public's ability to deal with it. Bangs is currently sifting through about 23,000 public comment testimonies regarding wolf management.
"People are really the interesting aspect in all of this," Bangs says, chuckling. "Wolves are really quite boring."