As the federal government readies a controversial reintroduction of the gray wolf to
central Idaho, conservationists have taken legal action to stop the plan, saying it would
disrupt, and perhaps endanger, a process that appears to be occurring naturally.
In May, after more than a decade of planning and often rancorous debate, the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service released its final plan for reintroducing wolves into central Idaho
and the Yellowstone region. The Sierra Club, represented by the Sierra Club Legal Defense
Fund, has filed a 60-day notice of its intent to sue if the Idaho plan goes forward,
arguing that the wolf's protections under the Endangered Species Act would be compromised.
The Fish and Wildlife Service plans to designate the Idaho wolves as a
"non-essential, experimental" population under an exception provided by the
Endangered Species Act. The exception, designed to mollify local residents hostile to the
reintroduction of a threatened or endangered species, gives federal officials leeway in
their treatment of a particular endangered species.
Using the exception, federal officials have devised a plan for the reintroduced Idaho
wolves -- which could be extended to cover those already roaming Idaho -- that offers only
"paltry" protections, according to Alex Levinson, the Sierra Club's litigation
For example, no critical habitat would be designated -- a key element of the Endangered
Species Act strategy for recovering a species -- and protection of wolf dens would be left
to the discretion of Fish and Wildlife Service officials. Also alarming to
environmentalists is a provision allowing local ranchers and other landowners to kill
wolves thought to be threatening livestock. Replacing these wolves would also left to
discretion of federal officials.
The agency plans a so-called hard release of 30 to 75 wolves into Idaho in November.
Wolves captured in Western Canada will be transported and released in the rugged terrain
of central Idaho. Critics say the plan puts the young, non-breeding, unrelated wolves at
risk because they will have no opportunity for acclimation or adjustment.
"It's basically an experiment," said Betsy Buffington, associate
representative in the Club's Northern Plains field office. "Hard release has
produced dismal results where it's been employed in the past, so we have grave concerns
that it will work now."
Hard release was used in an unsuccessful attempt to reintroduce wolves in Michigan in
the late 1970s. All of the Michigan wolves died within one year. Fish and Wildlife Service
biologists have recorded wolf sightings in Idaho with increasing frequency, including the
sightings of multiple animals. But the authors of the environmental impact study ignored
the information from their own scientists, Buffington said.
Long portrayed as a ruthless, savage killer, the wolf was systematically eradicated
throughout the western United States in the early decades of this century. Reduced to
isolated populations in Minnesota and Alaska, the gray wolf has been listed as an
endangered species in every other state since 1973.
Both for its symbolic importance and its crucial role as a predator, reintroducing the
wolf has been a cherished dream of environmentalists. In the Yellowstone region, at least,
a revived wolf population would cap a long crusade to rebuild the natural food chain. The
wolf is the only major predator missing from the Yellowstone ecosystem and its absence has
thrown the ecosystem out of balance, biologists say.
Unlike the Yellowstone region, wolves are believed to be well-established in Idaho.
Sometime in the 1970s, a pack of wolves is thought to have crossed the border into Montana
Some of these wolves may have broken away and crossed over into Idaho. Whatever its
origins, the wolf's apparent natural recolonization of the state --- some biologists
contend that one or two wolf packs may already exist -- could be jeopardized,
environmentalists say, if it is stripped of the protections it now has as an endangered
Environmentalists have fewer objections to the Yellowstone plan because it would not
endanger existing wolves. The Yellowstone wolves would also be treated as a
"non-essential, experimental" population, but their release will be carried out
under much more favorable conditions than Idaho.
The Canadian wolves introduced into Yellowstone will initially be penned and fed local
carrion to acclimate them to the new location, then released into the winter range of
herds of elk and bison.
Within the boundaries of national parks and national wildlife refuges, the Yellowstone
wolves will be protected as endangered species.
Contact Betsy Buffington in the Northern Plains field office at (307) 672-0425.
SOURCE: Neil Hamilton, printed originally in The Planet, November 1994
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