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A captive Gray Wolf at the Wildlife Science Center in Minnesota. Photographer: Derek Bakken Creative Commons
Of all the mammals slated for reintroduction, the gray wolf best exemplifies the hard-line, extremist positions taken by both supporters and opponents. In this day and age, with increasing complexity of groups, and a government taking the middle ground, less and less legislation seems to get off the ground. While the future of the gray wolf looks promising in the Upper Midwest with successful natural colonization, a simple but unanswered question remains: should local people control reintroduction if the wolves fail to recolonize naturally?
Based on past experiences in animal reintroduction and recolonization programs, a better understanding about gray wolf behavior is essential if the gray wolf and humans are to co-exist in reintroduced areas. One of the problems is that people associate wolves with wilderness areas only because:
- human populations drove the wolves from all other areas, forcing them into wilderness areas, which were generally protected and hard for bounty hunters to reach5
- as wolves are being reintroduced, local residents fear losing land they use for ranching and recreation because of this “wolf - wilderness” association, even though it has been proven that wolves are highly adaptable and can survive in quasi wilderness settings with greater road densities and more open terrain than previously suggested.5 In other words, wolves can live in semi-populated areas.
But can people live with wolves? The question is not as straightforward as it may seem.
Supporters vs. opponents
Various environmental groups are at the forefront of activities to help people co-exist with wolves. These groups have already alleviated some of roadblocks set up by hard-line pro-wolf group. For example:
- Defenders of Wildlife instituted a program in Montana and Idaho that paid $5,000 to ranchers to protect wolf dens on the ranchers’ land.5
- Other conservation groups offer compensation to ranchers for livestock and pet deaths.2 However, expenses add up, especially when government officials are needed to police wolf-prone areas and determine the cause of livestock deaths. Which raises the hypothetical point: how much money is needed to alleviate the stress on a rural family when their pet dog is killed by a gray wolf? How far can money go?
- Other measures taken by Federal Government include fencing reintroduction areas and the killing of wolves that step out of bounds of their control area.5
The last point raises an important issue; is it legal to kill or capture an endangered species? Hardcore advocacy groups and pro-wolf organizations have taken the matter to court, effectively stalling gray wolf reintroduction efforts. For example:
- Lawsuits in Wyoming and the Southwest by environmentalists and the Farm Bureau argue that, in active Federal Government wolf reintroduction programs in Idaho and Montana, the “nonessential, experimental wolf populations” being relocated are not protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) like they should be (the gray wolf is endangered in all states).1,7 Therefore this relocation constitutes a taking (killing, capture, or harming) by the Federal Government.1,7
- In active reintroduction programs in Montana and Idaho, the federal government has granted special permits to ranchers that enable the ranchers to kill wolves that attack livestock, easing up restrictions placed on the wolf under the ESA.1,2
- A federal judge recently ruled a reintroduction out west as illegal and ordered the killing of wolves to stop.1 Ironically, pro-wolf environmental groups hail this as a victory because wolves are not being killed anymore. Yet reintroduction plans are stalled due to the above legislation, and I believe this is a major step backwards for wolf reintroductions.
On the other hand, some proponents of wolf reintroduction are taking steps to ensure reintroduced wolves do stand a chance. Groups like the Defenders of Wildlife are mobilizing and spreading unbiased information about the wolf, debunking many public myths about the gray wolf.3 Their hope is for improved education, and for lawsuits and litigation to be avoided in the future.
Unfortunately for many pro wolf groups, this is not an ideal world where gray wolves could return to the land they inhabited hundreds of years ago; and find it uninhabited. One conservation biologist argues that with reintroductions of wolves, the process itself needs to be controlled from people at the local level.5
- L.D. Mech5 says there is “no recovery without control.” He proposes control at the local level, which is crucial to the success of an active reintroduction plan in Maine and other states.
- Compensation measures and lethal control devices must be instituted at the local level by townships and state or county environmental organizations.5
- Initiatives that incorporate the studying, protecting, and holding by local native tribes (who own some of the land where wolves are reintroduced) in Idaho have proven that local efforts can work.1,2
The role of education
Nearly all conservation biologists urge education and cooperation between interested parties (including between Canada and the U.S.) as the most important step in creating a successful reintroduction plan.3,4,5,6,7 Maine and other states near Canada have potential wolf habitat6 but land management issues need to be resolved first. Yet I believe successful wolf reintroduction could become a reality in Maine and other states if:
- pro gray wolf recovery groups, such as the Maine Wolf Coalition and Defenders of Wildlife, provide public education and accept control measures as part of a reintroduction plan, so the people of Maine might start to realize that wolves could return there.
- the people of Maine and other states decide for themselves about wolf reintroduction after an extensive education program, where the federal government and local environmental groups work together.
- biases and myths were dispelled so conservation and pro-wolf groups could study and promote relocating gray wolf populations.
The gray wolf’s survival
Wolf reintroduction seems to be feasible in Maine and elsewhere in the future but right now there are too many factors against it to become a reality any time soon. Searches to identify suitable habitat are already underway6 and efforts by environmental groups and government agencies are taking shape throughout the country to dispel myths about the wolf. I strongly believe wolf reintroduction in America can succeed if the people in the community work in harmony with the groups that are initiating and managing the programs. This way, locals will realize that hard work can make a wolf roam the forested woods of Northern Maine or the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana once again.
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