Almost every member of Utah’s congressional delegation has co-sponsored legislation to remove wolves from the endangered species act. Representative Jason Chaffetz wants Utah and other states to manage their wolf populations without interference from the federal government. “You’ve got farmers in Northern Utah that are concerned about the encroachment. The time to deal with this is before it becomes an out of control problem. We’re still having issues, there still have been wolf sightings and killings in Utah, is my understanding. But the precedent this sets is an important one above and beyond just the wolves.”
In other words, for some, it’s a states rights issue. The legislation would bypass federal agencies and turn over control of the wolf population directly to the states. It’s a move Utah’s ranchers are cheering, but others are worried about. The emotional divisions over this legendary animal goes back hundreds of years.
When European settlers moved to the new world with livestock, a conflict between humans and wolves was inevitable. “In the evolution of wolves there was just never any food like domestic sheep, there just never was.”
With tasty sheep now the target, Utah State University wildlife biologist Robert Schmidt says the response to wolves from farmers and ranchers was intense. And stories such as Little Red Riding Hood didn’t do much to help the general populations view of the wolf either. So began the creature’s endangerment and Schmidt says, it could happen again. He says societal attitudes towards the wolf should be used as a criterion in the future, before deciding whether to return wolf management to the states.
“What we’re arguing is that attitudes are still so polarized so even if you have a good plan today on paper those attitudes drive policy. And so the policies of today may not be the policies of tomorrow. Because it seems that attitudes are getting even more polarized and angrier towards wolves and people that are pro-wolf.”
In Utah, the conflict between humans and wolves shows no signs of easing. Leonard Blackham, Commissioner for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, says if wolves move into Utah there will be a large economic impact on farmers and ranchers. “We don’t have the wide open wilderness type areas that they have in Yellowstone, or even Montana, or even Wyoming. I don’t think that there’s any question that is we have them in Utah they're going to be in trouble. One thing that you want to remember is our cattleman and sheep growers don’t make a lot of money. It’s a pretty tight margin.”
According to the Utah Department of Agriculture--this year five calves and eight sheep have been confirmed killed by wolves—a cost $5,000. These wolves were thought to have wandered into the state. Blackham says the Departments’ position is to keep all wolves out of Utah.
Further north in Montana, Ed Bangs has a different goal. He’s responsible for monitoring wolf reintroduction for the US Fish and Wildlife Services. Bangs says since 1978, there have been a total of 4200 livestock reported killed by wolves across the country and more than 1200 wolves were killed in response. “So wolves do kill livestock occasionally. Now to the livestock industry, it’s absolutely insignificant. But where you have wolf packs some producers can have significant livestock losses, there’s no doubt about that.”
According to Bangs the Northern Rocky Mountain population has now recovered to more than 1700 wolves. He says Utah was not essential to this recovery plan. “I know that in the Northern Rocky Mountains the wolf population is fully recovered. It’s never going to be threatened or endangered again by genetic diversity or anything else. We essentially just extended a vast Canadian wolf population an extra 400 miles to the south.”
Because of the successful recovery, in 2009 a new policy allowed Montana, Idaho and a small part of North Central Utah to manage their wolf populations and implement hunts. But not in Wyoming. That’s due to Wyoming’s “shoot on sight” policy throughout most of the state. A federal judge ruled in August that if the Rocky Mountain Northern gray wolves are protected in one state, they must be protected in all. They were re-listed and remain under federal protection today. The Interior Department is in discussions with the states to figure out how to resolve the issue.
That uncertainty bothers state officials and is one reason Utah’s congressional leaders are getting involved. Commissioner Blackham: “We’re a little frustrated in the sense that here was the objective, the objective was met years ago and yet the restriction and the protection still exists. Utah was not proposed to be part of the recovery area and we do not think its necessary. Every animal does not need to be in every state in the union to be a viable population.”
Utah State University biologist Schmidt says while wolf populations have to be controlled to prevent conflicts with humans and livestock, it’s not clear if states are up to the task. He says before any agreement is made between the federal government and the states, all available scientific information needs to be taken into account, that includes social science data about attitudes towards wolves.
“You pick any other endangered species, whether its California Condors or Black tailed prairie dogs or anything else, the reason for their endangerment is habitat loss, pesticides, or something like that, right? We have plenty of wolf habitat, there’s no big disease outbreaks, there is plenty of food for wolves. Wolves are different because the reason for their endangerment was attitudes.”
Congress is unlikely to act on this issue before the end of the year.
This story originally aired 12/14/10
UPDATE: The gray wolf has been delisted in the North East corner of Utah since March 2011 and as of August 30, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service returned management of the gray wolf back to Wyoming. Management is also controlled by the states of Idaho and Montana under their management plans.