A Changing Landscape: Wolves in the West

In today’s blog, ranch broker, Mac McWhorter, takes us through the history, debate, and considerations of the successful reintroduction of the Rocky Mountain gray wolf as it relates to ranchers, landowners, and hunters.


Ranchers, landowners, outfitters, and others who have an interest in the Rocky Mountain West understand they share this land with a multitude of wildlife, including predators. Those who make their living in these wild places, specifically parts of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington are faced with additional challenges, often accompanied with strong feelings, regarding the successful reintroduction of the Rocky Mountain gray wolf.  With sound management practices ranchers can mitigate excessive predation/stress to livestock.


A History

The Endangered Rocky Mountain Wolf

With the exception of the occasional wolves that dispersed from Canada into Montana and Idaho, wolves are believed to have been effectively eradicated from the Rocky Mountain West by the end of the 1930s. In 1973, U.S. Congress established the Endangered Species Act, and the northern Rocky Mountain wolf was added to the endangered list soon after.

The Reintroduction

In the 1980s, The Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Team, a multiagency government taskforce working in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, completed a plan to guide wolf recovery efforts in three core areas located in parts of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

By the early 1990s, dispersed wolves from Canada were actively living and reproducing in Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. In 1995 and 1996, biologists accelerated the reintroduction process by relocating a total of 66 wolves from Canada to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and the No Return Wilderness in central Idaho.

A Success

Over time, the effort proved quite successful with new packs forming and dispersing well outside of the initially prescribed core wolf areas. By the end of 2002, wolf populations in the northern Rocky Mountains had met and exceeded the recovery criteria of over 30 breeding pairs. Due to the success of the reintroduction initiative, and pending any future court rulings, wolves have now been removed from the endangered species list in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.


The Debate

The reintroduction of wolves certainly comes with controversy and debate. Some of the most vocal opponents often include ranchers fearful about livestock predation, and those concerned about wildlife population and hunting. On the other hand, wolf advocates argue that the reintroduction of the species was the ethical decision and helps maintain a balanced ecosystem. Organizations like the Western Landowners Alliance (WLA), which focuses on the ecological health and economic prosperity of working lands in the American West, has been quite successful in bringing people together who have an interest in these kinds of issues.

Landowners find a delicate balance

Their recent symposium held in Cody, WY titled Beyond Boundaries did just that when they hosted a multi-day event with local landowners, WY Game and Fish, elected officials, and others to discuss balancing the interest of working lands within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – particularly with regard to the large numbers of migratory ungulates and the predators that hunt them. Many voices with wide ranging points of view were heard over the course of the symposium, and much was learned as a result.

Regardless of your sentiment over the reintroduction of the wolf, it appears they have successfully reclaimed their niche in parts of the Rocky Mountain West. As for interactions with livestock, several management practices can be implemented. The Wyoming Game and Fish as well as the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks websites provide numerous guides on suggested tactics, a few of which include:

  • increased human presence
  • management intensive grazing
  • high-risk landscape management
  • herd composition
  • carcass/attractant removal
  • scare devices/fladry particularly in smaller pastures
  • capture/removal
  • lethal control


The Cost of Predation and Hunting

Several states, with the help of federal grants, have developed programs that compensate ranchers for livestock losses. While compensation programs helped ease the fears of many ranchers by mitigating profit losses, the increasing number of depredation claims each year leaves many concerned about keeping them funded into the future. Some suggest that that there is too much potential to abuse the system with fraudulent claims, and that conflicts should be expected when keeping livestock in outlying areas.

At the center of the wolf management debate is whether they should be treated as trophy game with an allocation of hunting licenses issued to the public. Reducing wolf depredation, revenue from license sales, population control, and increasing ungulate populations are just of the few augments in favor of hunting. As of now, Wyoming and Idaho have issued a limited quota of licenses for the 2018 hunting season. If one thing is clear it is that the conversation of management of the Rocky Mountain wolf is far from over.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks-

Although wolves feed primarily on big game animals, they occasionally do kill livestock and other domestic animals. USFWS and the State of Montana work with livestock owners to reduce the risk of wolf-caused losses and resolve conflicts through a combination of non-lethal deterrents and lethal control.


Wolves do have the potential to impact populations of deer, elk, and moose. How much of an impact varies in space and through time and most importantly, it varies with other environmental factors such as drought, severe winter, overall carnivore density, or general habitat conditions.


Stewards of the Land

As the stewards of this land, landowners have a responsibility to try to balance their own interests with the wildlife we share the landscape with. Through agencies like the US Fish & Wildlife Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Idaho Fish and Game, and many others, there are numerous resources available to help educate those who may be impacted by this issue. Follow the links below to learn more.


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