Why Relisting Wolves in Wyoming was a Mistake

by Daniel Kinka, PhD

On September 23rd, a federal judge ruled that the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to accept Wyoming’s 2012 wolf management plan was “arbitrary and capricious.” As a result, wolves are once again federally protected in Wyoming under the Endangered Species Act. This ruling is merely the most recent in what seems to be a never-ending litigious cycle, as wolves have been de-listed and then again re-listed in Wyoming three times since they were brought back, and all since the population reached its recovery goals in 2002.

The reason for this most recent, court-mandated, relisting of wolves amounts to something like a syntactical error. The ruling (as far as I can tell) is correct to the letter of the law, but comes across as myopic with regard to the wonderfully complex socio-ecological system to which wolves now belong. But, I don’t want to discuss the legality of the decision.

There are other upsetting outcomes of this ruling. For instance, if you follow the news (or your Facebook news feed), you might have gotten the impression that this ruling was the omniscient hand of almighty justice wiping Wyoming’s so-called “predator zone” from the face of the earth. This, of course, had nothing to do with the court’s decision. And again, I don’t want to talk about the individuals who erroneously heralded this as a victory over anachronistic management practices. Anyone who read the court ruling knows that had nothing to do with it.

What was ruinously overlooked, was the effect that this decision is almost certain to have on already dichotomized attitudes towards wolves, wolf conservation, and wolf management. Wolves are a divisive and polarizing topic in the West. However, in granting Wyoming the right to manage its wolves, a small step was taken towards the democratization of wolf management. It offered the people who live with wolves a say in how they should be managed; a chance to ease some tension on the subject. This lawsuit stripped that modicum of control from the people of Wyoming.

The reintroduction of wolves to the Western United States was a tremendous success for conservation. The USFWS by the guidance of the Endangered Species Act achieved the far-too-rare triumph of righting the wrongs of a previous generation. Wolves recovered! We should all be proud of that. But as it turns out, wolves are very good recoverers. And now we must decide where we think they should and shouldn’t be. Passing the torch of wolf management from the USFWS to the state of Wyoming was symbolic of graduating wolf management from a biological issue to a socio-ecological issue.

It was nice while it lasted, I guess.

In 2012, when wolves were delisted for the third time in Wyoming, I was working in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park as a field biologist, tracking wolves to better understand their eating habits. Then (and now) Wyoming’s wolf management plan struck me as cowboyish, and perhaps even a bit draconian. But I was relieved all the same. Sure, wolves would be treated as “predators” (read: “unregulated nuisance species”) in more than 80% of the state, but there’s a lot more cattle than wilderness in that part of Wyoming. To the extent that livestock depredating wolves damn themselves and their wild brethren, I figured it was probably best to keep them out of areas where they could do at least as much harm as good. Wyoming’s plan may have been heavy-handed, but it seemed justified, especially if it appeased some of the more vocal opponents of wolves in Wyoming.

In 2013, Wyoming began managing its wolves under the watchful eye of the entire nation. They started the year with many more wolves than they were asked to manage for by the USFWS, and more than Wyoming wanted. As such, Wyoming initiated a plan to marginally reduce the wolf population by 5%. Instead, despite an aggressive and controversial approach to wolf management, the wolf population in Wyoming actually grew by 5% in 2013.

One would think that this would be welcome news to those that were still calling for continued federal protection of wolves. At the very least, it showed that Wyoming’s management plan wasn’t going to eradicate (or even put a dent in) the wolf population there any time soon. Nevertheless, Wyoming was sued by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Fund for Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club on the grounds that its management plan was inadequate. We know how that turned out.

What’s most dangerous about relisting wolves in Wyoming is what it forecasts. Management of wolves and many other iconic species in the United States is tracing the path of a pendulum, whereby the inertia of an extreme conservation philosophy carries policy far past its natural center until the gravity of an extreme management philosophy inevitably draws it back. Thus the pendulum swings between two extreme philosophies with no force of reason to halt it at its natural center.

The wolf pendulum in Wyoming was approaching its center three weeks ago. On September 23rd, 2014 it went rocketing by so fast that most of us didn’t even notice it pass.

Before the court’s ruling, Wyoming had a management plan. It was not a perfect plan. Many people were angered by the callous way that Wyoming chose to manage wolves in most of the state, and rightly so. But it was a plan. It was a plan that could be amended. It was a plan that served as a framework by which pro- and anti-wolf individuals could debate over how Wyoming should manage its wolves. Perhaps most importantly, it was a plan that could have marked the start of a tumultuous road toward a fair and unilaterally supported approach to wolf management and conservation in Wyoming. Instead we’re back on the pendulum.