When wolves were reintroduced to Idaho and Yellowstone in 1995, then rancher, and now senator Brad Little of Emmett, predicted that environmentalists who were then saying 300 wolves was a reasonable recovery goal would want it raised by the time the goal was met.
Neither I nor Little thought at the time the Northern Rockies would reach that point for years to come (the recovery goal was met in 2002). But we didn’t know just how good Idaho would turn out to be as habitat for wolves. With a population at least at 740 and perhaps higher than 800, Idaho has more than half of all of the wolves in the region today.
Yellowstone’s wolves haven’t done as well, despite fewer legal and illegal killings there. Now in fact, Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at UC Los Angeles, is suggesting Yellowstone’s wolves face the threat of genetic isolation from the rest of the population. This threat can be easily be addressed the same way the problem of few or no wolves was solved 13 years ago, by bringing more wolves in.
But environmentalists who are preparing to sue to stop delisting are using Wayne’s research, published in Science Magazine, to underscore their assertion that 2,500 to 3,000 wolves are necessary to have a viable population of wolves. The genetics card is especially interesting since opponents of wolf reintroduction have long argued that the wolves, which were brought in from Canada, were not genetically the same as wolves native to the area, a fact Fish and Wildlife was able to dispute with DNA tests.
Thirteen years ago three environmental groups challenged the reintroduction (only in Idaho despite evidence that native wolves were present in Yellowstone as well) because they considered it illegal. Had they won that case the reintroduction Yellowstone would have gone forward and Idaho would have had to continue to depending on occasional visits from wolves ranging from Canada and Montana for recovery of the species.
There would be far fewer wolves in the Rockies than there are now.
That takes me back to Little. He worked at the time with Sen. James McClure on a plan that would have allowed reintroduction in Yellowstone and central Idaho’s wilderness. But once the wolves left the wilderness or the park they would have had no protection.
At a time when livestock interests and western senators were successfully bottling up any chance of reintroduction in the 1980s, the plan brought interest from some environmental groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, one of the groups now planning to sue to stop delisting.
Little and McClure at the time took a lot of political heat from their friends in the livestock industry for seeking a compromise on wolves. Eventually reintroduction came when President Bill Clinton was elected and the current recovery goals and delisting guidelines were set.
That’s when Little predicted the rules will be changed. The Fish and Wildlife Service kept its recovery goal but now some environmentalists want it higher.
The states of Idaho Montana and Wyoming have all committed to maintaining 50 percent higher wolf populations than the minimums. So the 300 number that critics say is too low is no longer really an issue.
But if Wayne is right the current population, far higher than anyone predicted, it could be at this point, would still be too low. Who will a judge believe?
Environmental lawyers have been very successful challenging efforts to delist or downlist wolves elsewhere. This time the political compromises made to bring Wyoming into the fold appears to be the biggest legal weaknesses in the plan.
We should have some idea how good the environmentalists’ case will be on March 28 when the delisting rule is scheduled to go into effect. If they can get a restraining order that means a judge thinks they not only have a good chance to win but also that allows delisting to go forward, presents an immediate and irreversible damage.
That’s a high bar.