Why the Fight for Wolves Matters
For decades now the third week of October has been celebrated by wolf conservation organizations across the country as Wolf Awareness Week. Since the gray wolf was first protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1974, there have been continuous battles fought for the recovery of the species on both the federal and state level.
To even the most dedicated wolf advocates, this fight can feel exhausting, especially as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is poised to deliver on its promise to remove the wolf’s endangered species protections by the end of the year.
Yet Wolf Awareness Week is a perfect opportunity to reflect on the many successes achieved over the years as a result of these battles, particularly in the past decade. There could be no discussion of wolf “recovery” in many regions of the West were it not for these efforts.
In every state where wolves live today, there’s been a fight to keep them there. In California, which is home to only a single wolf pack, a court victory defeated a legal challenge by the livestock industry that tried to overturn the 2014 state listing of wolves.
Simply keeping healthy wolf populations alive, even with federal protection, has been a struggle that almost inevitably is settled by lawsuits.
In Oregon, the Center for Biological Diversity and our allies sued in 2011 to stop the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife from killing members of the first wolf pack that had established itself in the state after a 60-year absence. This led to greater protections for the species during the earliest stages of recovery there. The state is home to nearly 160 wolves as of 2019 — but they still live in only 12% of the state’s suitable wolf habitat.
Similar legal action ended the killing of wolves by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in late 2015. Before that the state’s “management” plan had authorized the sustained killing of up to 60% of its wolves in order to artificially inflate elk populations for the benefit of a small number of commercial outfitters and hunters. Earlier this year wolf killing by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program in Idaho was successfully restricted.
Wolf advocates have also had to fight, again and again, to stop the use of traps, snares and poisons to kill wolves. Our efforts have resulted in statewide bans on M-44 cyanide bombs in Idaho and Oregon, and in April a lawsuit brought by conservation groups halted the use of lethal traps and snares by Wildlife Services in identified suitable wolf habitat in Northern California.
Our hard work has also paid off in helping to reform long-broken wolf management policies. In September the governor of Washington directed the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to draft new rules governing the killing of wolves involved in conflicts with livestock. We hope Washington can soon pivot away from a lethal management style that has killed 34 wolves since 2012 — 29 on behalf of the same livestock owner, in prime wolf habitat in the Colville National Forest.
Soon wolves may even roam the wilds of Colorado once again. Following years of advocacy by a large coalition of organizations, more than 200,000 Coloradans signed petitions in December to place Proposition 114 on the November 2020 ballot. If voters approve Prop. 114, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will have to develop a wolf restoration and management plan based on science and statewide public hearings and begin to reintroduce wolves by Dec. 31, 2023.
Wolf advocates have fires to put out constantly, and likely we always will. But we’ve accomplished remarkable things for these beautiful animals, and it’s because those who love and advocate for them will never give up. This is not an option, since the forces that sought to eradicate wolves in the first place have not gone away. No longer is it just the livestock industry or federal and state government agencies that oppose wolf protections. Now sport-hunting groups, anti-government coalitions, right-wing think tanks, and the politicians and lobbyists propped up by these groups all work together, bent on preventing the peaceful coexistence of people and wolves.
Yet the rising tide of public sentiment is against these forces and in favor of saving wolves and the wild. Federal delisting of the wolf in 2013 was met with overwhelming public and scientist opposition. The latest call to delist has met with even more. As past victories have shown, if we keep fighting for wolves, we will prevail.
Amaroq Weiss is the senior West Coast wolf advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.