Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Wolf's Tale

by Alexander Cockburn

The Yellowstone wolves soon showed up northeast of the park outside the little town of Red Lodge, Mont. Sen. Max Baucus thundered that unless the Fish and Wildlife Service dealt with the situation, he would ask the governor of Montana to call out the National Guard
Amid the darkness of the winter solstice, the European peasants of old would tremble in their cabins as they heard the wolf packs howling their way across the moonlit snow. That was then. Now, in Montana and Idaho, the noise people are waiting for is the howl of jet engines, as wolves, soundly dosed with sodium pentathol, begin the flight back home to Canada and an uncertain future.

William Downes, a federal district judge in Wyoming, has temporarily stayed his expulsion order, but the saga thus far is a rich seasonal pudding of human folly.

The story begins in 1995, with a plan concocted by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and an environmental group called Defenders of Wildlife. The scheme was to trap more than a hundred gray wolves in Canada and release them in Yellowstone National Park, in northwest Wyoming and in central Idaho. It was to be the climax of a 10-year campaign to bring the wolf back to its original haunts.

To this end, millions had signed petitions. Polls showed huge public support for the wolf. Schoolchildren, rejecting the rank wolfism of Little Red Riding Hood, sent emotional appeals to Yellowstone Park Headquarters. For their part, environmental groups found wolf appeals to be as big a money magnet as baby seals and sold wolf calendars by the millions.

There was a problem. Not everyone loves wolves. Most particularly, many ranchers living in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho hate wolves and have successfully imparted this loathing to the congressional delegations of these three states.

To allay such concerns, Defenders of Wildlife and the Interior Department pored over the Endangered Species Act and dusted off Section 10(j). This provision allows endangered species to be imported into areas formerly occupied by such species, so long as there is no potential for the species to repopulate the area without human involvement.

To Babbitt and Defenders of Wildlife, Section 10(j) seemed the perfect "win-win" proposition. They would bring in wolves from Canada, and these would be given the bureaucratic label of "non-essential experimental populations." In translation, this means they would not enjoy the protection of the Endangered Species Act and thus could be shot by ranchers and kindred lycanthrophobes.

The first shipment of Canadian wolves arrived in Yellowstone in 1995. The immigrants were held in cages to acclimatize them, received a well-publicized inspection by Secretary Babbitt, were strapped with radio collars and were finally released.

It was not long before the wolves experienced the downside of Section 10(j). Within a few weeks, a rancher in Idaho gunned down a wolf from a pack of Canadian immigrants. The Yellowstone wolves soon showed up northeast of the park outside the little town of Red Lodge, Mont. Sen. Max Baucus thundered that unless the Fish and Wildlife Service dealt with the situation, he would ask the governor of Montana to call out the National Guard.

To date, more than a dozen wolves have been shot. So how many survive? Here we come to another problem, in the form of an unsavory secret. The truth is, wolves had never really disappeared from the northern Rockies. They'd been there all along.

A memo from the Fish and Wildlife Service in the early 1990s estimated that there were at least five pairs in Idaho and furnished a map recording more than a hundred sightings of wolves in Idaho since the early 1970s. And in Yellowstone, a year before the Canadian wolves were imported, a wolf was shot and killed a few miles south of the park. Furthermore, in northwest Montana, the wolf population has been rebounding as the animals naturally migrate south across the border.

These wolves should be enjoying the full protection of the Endangered Species Act, which would not allow them or their habitat to be molested in any way. But if the Interior Department and Defenders of Wildlife recognized the existence of these native wolves, then Section 10(j) could not be invoked.

Indeed, there had been critics of the Section 10(j) tactic from the start. Steve Kelly, a Bozeman-based wolf advocate, says flatly that Defenders of Wildlife was motivated more by greed than by preservationist concerns, since there was less fund-raising potential in the phenomenon of wolves naturally regenerating than with the Canadian imports.

The question of designation became crucial. Was the wolf at the door enjoying the full protection of the Endangered Species Act, or was it merely a 10(j) wolf and thus fair game, to be dispatched with impunity?

Finally, both the Wyoming Farm Bureau and three green groups sued in federal court. The plaintiffs from the bureau wanted the transplanted wolves evicted. The greens wanted the native wolves to get full protection. On Dec. 11, Judge Downes ruled that Babbitt's wolves should be deported and the native wolves given fully protected status. Downes' ruling upholds the Endangered Species Act. "Congress," Downes wrote, "did not intend to allow reduction of (Endangered Species Act) protection to existing natural populations in whole or in part."

So will the Canadian imports be tracked down and thrown out of the country, to face a perilous future in the killing grounds of Alberta, where they shoot wolves from helicopters? For the moment, Judge Downes has stayed his order.

Moral for the season: Bureaucratic sleight of hand, "win-win" solutions and environmental opportunism may fool Little Red Riding Hood for a while, but sooner or later, the mask drops, and the wolf's blood is spilled. In the long run, Downes' decision will be good for the future of wolves in America. As for those Canadian immigrants, they should slip those radio collars off and run free.

© Creators Syndicate

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor January 3, 1998 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to reproduce.

Front Page