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Leaders of the Pack
Not everyone was happy when wolves returned to Yellowstone (the deer, for one), but the place is better with them there.

Wyoming wolves had reason to howl in victory last month when a federal court gave them back their protected status under the Endangered Species Act. A judge ruled that the state’s management of the species—which included a shoot-on-sight policy and a trophy-hunting range—was inadequate for sustaining a viable wolf population. (Disclosure: NRDC, OnEarth’s publisher, was a plaintiff in the case.)

Since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list in Wyoming in 2012, hunters have killed more than 200 of the animals in the state. For those who think that's okay, this video is for you.

Narrated by British author and columnist George Monbiot, this SustainableMan production details the transformation of Yellowstone National Park once wolves returned to it after a 70-year absence. Ecosystem science is complicated, and researchers are still piecing together how important predators are to the myriad relationships taking place across a landscape at any given time.

But after the wolf reintroduction in 1995, the packs kept deer and elk populations in check, making the herds more skittish and limiting grazing to certain areas. Grasses, shrubs, and aspens took hold, and within six years, forest-loving beavers and songbirds moved in. Once-denuded hills ceased eroding into the area’s rivers, which were being reengineered by beaver dams that were providing habitat for otters, muskrats, ducks, reptiles, and fish. Along with deer, wolves eat coyotes, whose diets are rich in rodents. Mice and rabbits began rebounding—and with them, more raptors, foxes, badgers, and bears came to snack on the small mammal surplus.

Long story short: Restoration efforts and endangered species protection didn’t just bring more wolves to Yellowstone. It may have brought a little bit more of everything.

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Rocky Kistner has been a reporter and video producer for more than 20 years, working for news organizations including ABC News, the Center for Investigative Reporting, American Public Media, and PBS Frontline. MORE STORIES ➔
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Northern Rockies gray wolf
States seeking non-lethal means of protecting livestock from predators

A recent federal court ruling that returned Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves to the endangered species list means that hunters won’t be allowed to shoot at them this fall, but that doesn’t mean the wolves won’t have guns pointed their way. Wildlife management officials still have the authority to shoot wolves if they prey on livestock, and those incidents led to more wolf deaths last year than public hunts. Conservation advocates hope the judge’s ruling will turn more attention toward non-lethal methods of protecting livestock from wolf attacks.

“Livestock conflicts are the greatest cause of wolf mortality in the Northern Rockies,” says NRDC wildlife advocate Matt Skoglund. “If the wolf attacks livestock, [officials] usually go kill that wolf, and sometimes they kill the whole pack.” In Montana, where Skoglund is based, 72 wolves were killed in public hunts in 2009, but 145 -- twice as many -- were killed after clashes with livestock.

Focusing on non-lethal measures to keep wolves and livestock apart would be beneficial to everyone, Skoglund says, because “you’re not losing livestock, and you’re not losing wolves.”

Several non-lethal practices are already being tried across the Northern Rockies. Electric fences, guard dogs, and red flags around the perimeter of a grazing area can all deter wolves. Then there’s the old-fashioned approach: a rider on horseback, just like in the old days. Wolves tend to avoid humans, so a range rider who tends the herd and actively frightens away any wolves that come around can help fend off attacks.

But some of these methods can be expensive, Skoglund says, and so far there hasn’t been significant public funding to help ranchers adopt them, so they’ve had to shoulder any costs themselves.

Wolves aren’t born with a taste for livestock -- they tend to prefer ungulates like deer and elk. But as opportunistic feeders, if they discover that sheep or steer make for an easy meal, they’ll keep coming back. “Carnivores have an amazing capacity to learn,” says Carolyn Sime, the state wolf coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “They remember where their food sources are… It’s like a bear finding a bird feeder.”

The vast size of Montana’s grazing pastures means that putting up a fence around livestock is often impractical, Sime says. Range riders cost money ranchers often say they don’t have, and other methods don’t always prove effective. Once wolves make a habit of feeding on pastured animals, Sime says, it may be too late to ward them off peacefully.

“If we see targeted behavior where wolves are specifically hunting livestock, that’s a behavior that is not likely to be turned around by non-lethal tools,” Sime says. “Honestly,” she adds, “sometimes you have to kill the wolf.”

But it doesn’t need to be that way. In April, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife granted a total of $1 million to 10 states with wolf populations to help compensate livestock owners for losses and fund non-lethal prevention methods. But Montana’s $140,000 will go entirely to compensating ranchers for the value of their lost livestock -- the state paid out $145,000 last year and expects to pay at least as much this year. George Edwards, who manages the state’s livestock loss mitigation program, says Montana wants to fund non-lethal projects, too, but if it doesn’t pay back ranchers first, animosity toward wolves will only increase. With state money and private donations dried up, “We were just on the edge of having to send out ‘Sorry, we’re out of money, we’ll pay you when we can’ letters,” Edwards says -- so there’s nothing left for non-lethal projects.

Still, killing wolves that prey on livestock and compensating ranchers are only temporary solutions, according to biologist Timm Kaminski. Ranchers are displeased even if they’re paid, and another wolf can easily move into a dead wolf’s territory, creating a cycle.

“Management through the barrel of a gun… doesn’t solve the depradation issue,” Kaminski says. “It’s like being in the Iraq and Afghanistan War and just signing onto it for a lifetime.”

Kaminski believes solutions will come from a broader view of the Rocky Mountain ecosystem that wolves and livestock share. He founded the Mountain Livestock Coalition, which combines the knowledge of scientists and livestock owners to try to keep wolves and ranch animals out of each other’s way. Isolated non-lethal projects may not work well, Kamisnki says, because wolves will simply go wherever the pickings are easiest -- like the next ranch over. But paying careful attention to wolf and livestock behavior and getting multiple ranchers to cooperate can often avert conflict, he says.

For example, by studying animals in Yellowstone National Park, Kaminski and his colleagues found that wolves are less likely to prey on animals that stand their ground instead of running away. Young sheep and cattle -- the ones most often killed -- are prone to run, but they’re less likely to do so if they’re in a close group, as the animals are at feeding time. Kaminski worked with a group of ranchers in Alberta, Canada, who had been feeding their cattle in the morning and grazing them in the evening. That means that when the wolves came at nightfall, the livestock were spread out on the pasture, the skittish calves bolted, and the wolves attacked. When the ranchers all agreed to feed at night instead, the dynamic changed: wolves could hunt deer and elk in the pasture, the livestock stayed safe in a cluster on the feed line, and conflicts declined dramatically.

But that kind of change takes a lot of knowledge about carnivore and livestock behavior, and it takes cooperation between conservation interests and agricultural ones. That’s not always easy to achieve, Kaminski says. He is frustrated with the cultural clash between ranchers who care about the wilderness but need to make a living, and some environmentalists who vilify them for threatening wolves.

“It’s tearing urban and rural people apart, and all they do is fight,” Kaminski says. “It’s not healthy, for the people or the land, to continue to broker all this on the backs of working ranchers or the wolves that we spent 20 years [trying] to reintroduce. I think it’s time for us to look for a unifying approach.”

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Mara Grunbaum is a freelance science and environmental reporter based in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has also appeared in Discover, Scientific American, Popular Mechanics and Scienceline.org. She grew up poking at tide pools in Seattle, Washington.
Home On Its Range: The Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf remains at risk.

One morning in September, rifle-bearing hunters set out across the Idaho wilderness in pursuit of prey. Their target was the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf, an animal striving to make a comeback throughout Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming as well as parts of Oregon, Washington, and Utah. Weeks later, the same scene played out in Montana at the start of its wolf hunting season. For conservationists, these scenes brought back bad memories: in the 1920s and 1930s, wolves, considered a nuisance, were nearly eliminated from the region by hunting, trapping, and other methods.

In April 2009 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the animals from the federal endangered species list, thus leaving their fate in the hands of state governments. More than 300 wolves in Idaho and Montana -- nearly one-quarter of the total population in those two states -- became fair game. In response, NRDC and a dozen other conservation groups sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court in Montana to relist the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf. As part of that suit, the groups also filed a motion to stop the hunts, but the motion was denied.

"These hunts are happening on top of already excessive wolf mortality," says NRDC senior wildlife advocate Louisa Willcox. Between the hunts and the lethal measures that ranchers and federal and state agencies use to protect livestock, Idaho and Montana wolf populations are facing an especially perilous year, she says.

But there may be a silver lining. In his September decision to allow the hunts, U. S. District Judge Donald Molloy noted that NRDC was likely to prevail in its pending suit against the Fish and Wildlife Service. Delisting the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf in Idaho and Montana but not Wyoming was, he said, a "practical determination that does not seem to be scientifically based" and appears to violate the Endangered Species Act. A final ruling is expected in 2010.

NRDC wildlife advocates believe a legal victory would give momentum to a more significant long-term goal: a scientifically sound recovery plan for the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population. One key is to ensure that the region's wolves remain geographically linked to promote genetic connectivity among the animals. A large, intermingling wolf population is more resilient than several small, isolated groups, explains Andrew Wetzler, director of NRDC's Wildlife Conservation Project. "Each subgroup sends individuals back and forth, and they reinforce each other," he says. "This protects any one population from some sort of calamitous event," such as a disease epidemic.

In the past, management policies for Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves have been shaped without sufficient regard for ecological principles. "The Endangered Species Act is supposed to be about good science, not politics," Willcox says. She and other experts think the recovery target for the region -- a mere 300 gray wolves -- set by the Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1980s is far below sustainable levels. While the current Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf population sits at about 1,650, at least 2,000 wolves are needed to establish a stable, self-sustaining population, according to Sylvia Fallon, a geneticist and evolutionary biologist at NRDC. Besides promoting genetic connectivity, bolstering the region's wolf numbers would help protect grasslands and stream banks. These habitats are important to birds and small mammals but are often overgrazed by deer and elk. With wolves present, those herds tend to be more dispersed and cause less damage.

Ultimately, what's needed is a national recovery strategy, say NRDC wolf experts. The Fish and Wildlife Service has set widely divergent recovery targets for specific groups of wolves in the Midwest, the Northern Rockies, and the Southwest, instead of approaching the conservation of gray wolves in a more coordinated way for the species as a whole.

Until that happens, Willcox and her team continue to support several regional initiatives to promote nonlethal strategies for managing livestock in wolf country.

"Some areas of the Northern Rocky Mountain ecosystem still contain all the species that were here when Europeans first set foot in the West," says Willcox. "Given all the development, asphalt, and sprawl across the country, it's a tremendous success to have an intact landscape still large enough to function as it did hundreds of years ago." Through their efforts to protect the region's wolves, Willcox and her team intend to keep it that way.

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Crystal Gammon is an intern at OnEarth. Before moving to New York City to study science, health and environmental journalism at New York University, she received a master’s degree in earth science at the California Institute of Technology. She’s ... READ MORE >
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