Call of the Wild--But Maybe Not for Much Longer

Nature is “red in tooth and claw,” the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, wrote in In Memoriam, A.H.H., and an awful lot of sheep ranchers and cattle are sick and tired of it—so sick and tired that they have pushed the federal government to remove the northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf from the list of endangered species, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did last month.

But there could be a great deal more death as a result—and not only because wolves will once again be fair game for hunters.

The decision to remove the northern gray wolf from has been challenged in court by 11 environment groups. But if it stands, states will take over authority for wolves in the northern Rockies—Wyoming and part of Montana and Idaho—on March 28, which de facto means that wolves will be hunted again.

The wolves’ crime? Being wolves, which many lifelong westerners view as a capital offense in and of itself. The species was wiped out in the lower 48 states, including Yellowstone National Park, in the 19th and 20th centuries, surviving only in northern Minnesota and Michigan’s Isle Royale, before being restored to Yellowstone beginning in 1996.

Everything in an ecosystem is connected, and if wolves are hunted again the domino effect would work like this. Healthy wolf packs keep coyote numbers down, because of direct predation as well as competition for resources. Coyotes like nothing better than a nice pronghorn fawn. Pronghorns, unique to North America, resemble African antelope. More coyotes mean fewer pronghorn, conclude biologist Kim Berger of the Wildlife Conservation Society and colleagues in a paper in the journal Ecology. Wolves rarely hunt pronghorn fawns themselves—the little things would hardly serve as an hors d’oeuvres for a wolf. Or as Berger says, “It would be like trying to feed an entire family on a single Big Mac.” So more wolves mean fewer coyotes and more pronghorns.

For the study, Berger’s team radio-collared more than 100 fawns in Grand Teton National Park. They compared survival rates in areas with and without wolves. Result: 10 percent of fawns survived in wolf-free/coyote-full zones, while 34 percent survived in areas where wolves were abundant and coyotes scarce.

Federal law allows hunting of wolves that attack livestock, so it’s not as if the animals are getting off scot-free. Last year, 102 wolves were killed. Government trappers killed 63, while citizens killed seven that were chasing or attacking livestock; another four were killed after confirmed livestock losses. The rest were apparently hunted illegally. Wolves killed 75 cattle in 2007, up from 32 in 2006; 27 sheep, up from four; as well as two llamas, 12 goats and three dogs, the Daily Inter Lake reported last week.) If the gray wolf is delisted, Wyoming and Idaho have said, they will launch a hunt to reduce the wolf population by 50 percent and 80 percent, respectively. There are an estimated 300 wolves in Wyoming and 700 in Idaho.