Will Yellowstone wolves follow Wile E. Coyote’s roadmap?
SAN FRANCISCO, California––If gray wolves could read, the gray wolves of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana would already be on the run south and west from the Northern Rocky Mountains into every adjoining state with mountains, elk, deer, and other wolf prey.
In legal terms, Judge Jeffrey S. White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California on February 10, 2022 put wolves outside of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana back on the federal endangered species list.
In practical terms, Judge White gave wolves their strongest incentive yet to take themselves off the endangered species list by fanning out across their historical range.
Until now, wolves have mostly remained bottled up in the Northern Rockies, in perpetual conflict with ranchers and hunters who never wanted them there in the first place, and who recently have been massacring wolves in numbers not seen since soon after exterminating wolves was made national policy in 1915.
Tips the balance away from Idaho, Wyoming, & Montana
The ruling, explained Western Environmental Law Center communications director Brian Sweeney in a media release, “restored Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf after they were eliminated by the Donald Trump administration in 2020,” specifically by Trump appointee Aurelia Skipwith, who headed the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service during the run-up to the 2020 national election.
(See Wolves, grizzly bears, wolverines & right whales sacrificed to Trump re-election bid.)
“The ruling,” Sweeney specified, “orders the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to resume recovery efforts” for grey wolves, and “re-designates the gray wolf as a species threatened with extinction in the lower 48 states with the exception of the Northern Rockies population, for which wolf protections were removed by Congress in 2011.”
But that is not all the White ruling does. It also may tip the balance in attractiveness of habitat to wolves in favor of anywhere they can go in the U.S. that is not Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.
Mayhem in the mountain states
Idaho and Montana currently have policies in effect that allow hunters and trappers to kill up to 90% of their resident wolf populations. Wyoming hunting and trapping policies seek to confine wolves to the northwestern quadrant of the state, adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.
These policies make much of the Northern Rockies profoundly hostile to wolves, despite an abundance of prey and cover.
Until the present anti-wolf policies took effect in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, gray wolves––formally reintroduced to the region in 1995––had little incentive to recolonize less favorable yet still viable habitat to the south, west, and to a more limited extent, the east.
Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana have furnished plenty of prey and cover. Human predation pressure, from ranchers, hunters, and trappers, has until the recent escalation of wolf hunting usually just thinned the wolf population enough to accelerate breeding among the survivors.
Since wolves suspected of killing cattle and sheep are also culled in the adjacent states, wolves have not fled for their lives from the Northern Rockies.
Lone wolves rarely restore populations
That may change soon.
Lone wolves, mostly males in futile search of mates, have been haphazardly meandering south and west to tentatively reclaim some former habitat in the Southern Rockies, the Cascades, and Sierra Nevada range for decades.
A few females have followed, re-establishing resident packs here and there. According the the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, there are now 132 grey wolves in Washington state and 173 in Oregon, more than 150 of them in the northeastern corner of Oregon adjacent to Idaho.
But the drift of wolves south and west has been slow.
Pumas & elk
Prey competition from pumas has been one factor of note.
The Teton Cougar Project, tracking 147 pumas for 16 years east of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, has documented that the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park coincided with a 50% drop in the puma population, both because wolves kill puma kittens and because hunting by wolves cuts into the prey base for pumas.
However, while wolves prevail over pumas where the habitat is equally favorable to both, lone wolves do not fare nearly so well against a puma. Only when wolf packs consistently outnumber individual pumas do wolves gain a decisive edge.
Wildfires cutting into elk habitat are also a factor limiting the spread of wolves, though post-wildfire regrowth typically brings an abundance of deer.
Will wolf diaspora parallel coyote diaspora?
The biggest factor holding back wolf range expansion, however, is that whole packs of wolves tend to be uninclined to leave areas where they have sufficient prey and cover until either other wolf packs drive them out, or hunting pressure makes refugees of them.
Hunting pressure making refugees of wolves in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana will inevitably bump smaller packs south and west.
If again federally protected, those packs will in turn accelerate the growth of permanent wolf populations in many of the regions where only wandering lone wolves currently visit.
The big question ahead is how much the wolf diaspora south and west, and perhaps east, will parallel the coyote diaspora north and east during the 1930s, under similar pressure.
Coyotes survived federal purge
Coyotes as well as gray wolves were targeted for extermination in 1915 by the U.S. Biological Survey, then an office within the U.S. Geological Survey that evolved into both the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and later, in 1986, the Wildlife Services division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
After killing what were believed to be the last gray wolves in the Lower 48 states in 1926, the extermination bureau was retitled Animal Damage Control in 1931, with killing coyotes the official top priority.
Wolves were cornered
But exterminating coyotes proved to be much more difficult than exterminating wolves had been.
Wolves had already lost much of their former prey base to the 19th century slaughter of North American bison.
The North American elk, deer, and even rabbit populations were also reduced to all-time documented lows by 1930, partly by hunting, but mostly by the conversion of former wildlife habitat to plowed farmland, and then by the Dustbowl, which temporarily turned much of the Great Plains into desert.
Wolves were left with nowhere to go.
Coyotes took habitat left by foxes
Coyotes, on the other hand, prospered because the advent of the automobile had, before open Model T Fords gave way to cars with closed cabs, given rise to an explosion in demand for fox fur car coats. Foxes were rapidly trapped out of their habitat in the Pacific Northwest and east of the Mississippi River.
Coyotes, fleeing persecution throughout the Southwest, rapidly took over the former fox habitat niche, and have never relinquished it.
Coyotes as of 1930 had never been formally identified east of the Mississippi, though the smaller wolves of the Northeast and Appalachian regions are believed to have had some distant coyote ancestry. Neither were coyotes known to live north of mid-Oregon.
By 1948, however, coyotes were common as far east as Maine, completing occupation of the whole of the continental U.S. when resident populations were identified in Florida in 1967.
Agency for Distributing Coyotes
Despite killing as many as two million coyotes per year, the Animal Damage Control initials, ADC, were by the mid-1960s sarcastically said to stand for Agency for Distributing Coyotes.
Research done initially in Texas in the mid-1950s, later replicated elsewhere, established that coyotes responded to intensive persecution by birthing bigger average litters, sooner in life, and by constantly expanding into new territory, wherever they could find suitable prey.
The presence of coyotes to this day inhibits the recovery of foxes, causing significant changes in fox behavior, albeit quantified more by anecdote than formal studies that did not begin until foxes in much of their former range were already scarce.
Foxes changed habits
Specifically, red foxes, a meadow-hunting species in Europe, became almost entirely edge habitat hunters in the U.S., favoring stone walls and woods, while coyotes––who are both bigger and faster––dominate the more open spaces.
Coyotes, being also bolder, have become much more common among human suburbs, even moving into big cities where foxes have been scarce for more than a century.
Grey foxes, always partially arboreal, may have become even more so, hunting birds more and descending into proximity to coyotes less.
The wolves of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana do not have quite the same open door to move south, west, and possibly eastward that coyotes did.
Wolves still need large prey
Wolves still need abundant large prey. The bison are still gone, replaced mainly by cattle raised for human consumption. Wolves feeding on cattle, anywhere, are still likely to be shot, or trapped and then shot.
Elk populations, however, are generally up, despite continual whines from hunters and hunting outfitters that elk in specific heavily hunted areas are allegedly fewer because of wolf predation.
Mule deer populations tend to be up in much of their range, but down in some of the regions most accessible to wolves.
Wolves from Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana are relatively unlikely to disperse rapidly east, across Great Plains farm habitat to meet the recovering wolf populations of Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, amid Virginia whitetail deer believed to be now more than twice as abundant as in pre-settlement times.
Wolf population can expand now
Despite the relative difficulty of wolf population expansion, though, the February 10, 2022 decision by Judge Jeffrey S. White of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California has cracked the door open to wolf population expansion as never before.
There is a western gray wolf population that can expand now, unlike in the first decades after the 1995 wolf reintroduction.
There is now some accessible gray wolf habitat for whole packs to move into.
And the combination of a hospitable legal environment outside of Idaho, Wyoming, and Wisconsin with intense persecution within those three states gives wolves new incentive to move as whole packs, where only lone wolves went before.
Mark Caponigro says
Judge Jeffrey S. White has already been condemned by hunters’ groups as an “activist judge” who doesn’t know anything about the ecological realities where wolves live. It should not surprise us to learn he has been harassed and threatened.
According to the NY Times article on Judge White’s decision, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is studying it with interest; reading between the lines, we may suspect she is quite pleased, and will be considering building on it to restore federal protection to the wolves of the Northern Rockies as well.
But as the Animals 24-7 article of October of last year, for which a link is provided, makes clear, the current chapter in the depressing history of wolves in the US is as politicized as ever. The new governor of Montana, Greg Gianforte, is a strong supporter of Donald Trump, and Trump loves him back. He first came to national attention as an unapologetic man of violence, when he assaulted and threw to the floor a journalist. He is a notorious, regulation-skirting trapper of wolves (trapping being one of the most cowardly and cruel ways to bring about the death of an animal), and has drawn forth in support the latent self-righteous wolf-haters of his state. When Yellowstone National Park officials made the request that wolves moving from the park into Montana be protected, the official response from Montana was along the lines of, “Once they pass from the park into Montana, they’re no longer Yellowstone wolves, they’re Montana wolves.” In Wyoming, it’s noteworthy that Harriet Hageman, the Trump-endorsed challenger of the courageous critic of Trump Congresswoman Liz Cheney, has boasted in her first campaign ad that she is among those who fought the feds to get wolves de-listed in that state. And Idaho has already for many years been an infamous center of wolf-hatred.
So we may be forgiven for believing that the desire to be unimpeded in brutalizing and killing wolves goes hand in hand with support for Trump, and resentful dislike of Democrats and Joe Biden. Let’s hope that won’t mean Secretary Haaland and others in the Biden administration will be scared off from doing the right thing, i.e. restoring full federal protections under the Endangered Species Act for wolves in the Northern Rockies. There is likely to be fierce backlash, and the protections may be unusually hard to enforce. Nevertheless, that is clearly the right way to go.