Once the most common large native carnivores in the Lower 48 states, wolves were completely eradicated from the West by the 1930s. Hundreds of thousands of wolves were poisoned, shot and trapped. To date, no other species has been so heavily persecuted in our nation’s history. And as generations passed, the wolf itself faded into fairy tales, typically misbranded as a dangerous beast that preyed on three little pigs and red-hooded girls.
In reality, wolves are an important native species that help cull unhealthy elk and deer and keep herds moving, which in turn reduces overgrazing damage to native plants and trees. That’s why they were reintroduced to Idaho and Yellowstone, which have some of the best wolf habitat in the West. Also, wolves tend to avoid humans and cause less livestock loss than domestic dogs, bad weather or disease. However, age-old livestock-wolf conflicts still undermine conservation efforts, pressuring wildlife managers to drive wolf numbers lower and lower. And anti-wolf sentiment deepens each time wolves are publicly accused of killing livestock or reducing elk for human hunters.
Today, there are roughly 3,000 cougars, 20,000 black bears and 45,000 coyotes in Idaho, but the number of wolves is still estimated to be less than 1,000 statewide. No other species with such low population levels is killed today with as much intensity — and animosity — as the wolf.
We can live peacefully with wolves. While all the fighting over them has been playing out in the media for decades, some people quietly decided to try to make it work. They crossed cultural lines and worked together to solve these problems. One of the best examples is the Wood River Wolf Project in Central Idaho.
For the last seven years, field technicians working with sheepherders have monitored wolves and pack denning activity. They’ve used nonlethal methods including sound and light deterrents, livestock guarding dogs, portable fencing and other strategies to successfully avoid livestock-wolf conflicts. Today the Wood River Wolf Project area has the lowest rate of sheep lost to wolves despite having the highest concentration of sheep grazing on national forests in Central Idaho wolf range. Between 10,000 and 22,000 sheep have grazed annually in the project area, with fewer than 30 killed by wolves over the entire seven-year period. And these methods are more cost effective than heavy-handed lethal control programs that use taxpayer-funded helicopters, airplanes and sharpshooters.
As a result, wolfpacks in the project area are better able to fulfill their important ecological role, and ranchers are able to use common-sense techniques to avoid losses to wolves and other native species, resulting in peace in the valley. Local residents understand that in the circle of life, wolves are a necessary part of a healthy and functional ecosystem. They bring millions of tourism dollars to the West as people from everywhere flock to Yellowstone to witness what may be the greatest wild theater in North America. And wolf attacks are among the rarest of all wildlife-human injuries in our country. So much for the “big, bad” image.
It’s been 20 years since wolves were restored to Idaho, and it’s increasingly obvious that they’re not that hard to manage. It’s time to let go of all the huffing and puffing and make wildlife decisions based on science and not science fiction. It takes only a little goodwill and common sense to make coexistence work.
Suzanne Asha Stone is Senior Northwest Field Representative for Defenders of Wildlife, Idaho.