Eugene Weekly : Natural Resistance : 12.23.10

The Need for Wolves
Maintaining balance in the food chain
by Mary O’Brien

I’ve only heard a wolf once, in 2001, while I was backpacking in Idaho wilderness. That was particularly warming, because wolves were really coming back home in that state, thanks to the willingness of the Nez Perce Tribe to assist with and track their recovery when Idaho’s state Legislature was refusing to let the Idaho Department of Fish and Game be lead state agency for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf reintroduction.

Since that time, some 1,700 wolves have been able to return to the Rocky Mountains, and you would think enough is enough, right? Recently, however, a federal court blocked taking wolves off the endangered list and returning wolf management to Idaho and Montana, because Wyoming, the third state in that three-state recovery area, has refused to develop a management plan that would insure wolves were not once again shot to oblivion.

Now, led by the claim that wolves will topple cattle grazing on the national forests (they won’t), and interfere with recent large increases in huntable elk (which are excessive in some areas), there are at least six bills in Congress to bypass the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and let various numbers of states “manage” wolves. The Obama administration has signaled agreement with this effort to bypass courts, science and the ESA process.

But the need for wolves goes way beyond whether Mary O’Brien or other tree-huggers can hear a wolf at night in the wilds. We need functional populations of wolves to maintain the health of our national forests in the face of climate change. Wolves help keep food chains in balance with foundation vegetation. For instance, wolves scatter elk from riparian areas where they are munching too many deep-rooted willow and cottonwood, thus weakening streambanks. They reduce elk pressure on aspen stands upon which high numbers of species depend. In the wake of recovering willow, beaver return, who both eat and expand willow by creating wetlands which nurse fish and amphibians and reduce flood force.

Gray wolves once played this key food web role throughout North America except for three southern states. Now wolves exist only in Alaska, Canada and seven northern states, including a small number in Oregon. Mexican wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf, have been reintroduced in New Mexico and Arizona, but they keep getting shot by ranchers and others who hate and/or fear (is there a difference?) wolves, so that after 12 years of “recovery,” fewer than 42 Mexican wolves remain in the wild.

Early in his professional career, at a 1920 national game conference, iconic forester and ecologist Aldo Leopold urged the extirpation of wolves. He said,

It is going to take patience and money to catch the last wolf or lion in New Mexico. But the last one must be caught before the job can be called fully successful. This may sound like a strong statement, but if any of you have lived in the West and see how quickly a piece of country will restock with wolves or lions, you will know what I mean.

By 1944, having observed and learned about irruptions of elk and deer and subsequent degradation of ecosystems when wolves are absent, Leopold came to understand that we need wolves. He spoke of

 … the modern curse of excess deer and elk, which certainly stems, at least in part, from the excessive decimation of wolves and cougars under the aegis of … the Fish and Wildlife Service. None of us foresaw this penalty. I personally believed, at least in 1914 when predator control began, that there could not be too much horned game, and that the extirpation of predators was a reasonable price to pay for better big game hunting. Some of us have since learned the tragic error of such a view, and acknowledged our mistake.

Some of us haven’t learned. The ESA is a bulwark against short-term exigencies and barrel-bottom ignorance. By setting the precedent of a congressional bypass of the ESA, the Obama administration is threatening every endangered species that some politically connected special interest doesn’t like.

Mary O’Brien has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She is currently dividing her time between Eugene and Castle Valley, Utah.