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Utahns Welcome Wolf Home

"In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf...
We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realize then, and have known ever since, that there was something new in those eyes-- something known only to her and the mountain.... Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a new wolfless mountain..."
Aldo Leopold, Sand County Almanac.

PART ONE

Wolf knows the Uintas; it is recognizable. It is home.

Utah has always been home to wolf-- and for the better part of this century only as an apparition, with the material wolf yearning for the last wildness on the Uintas. It is likely a few individuals have broken ranks from their already isolated and fragmented packs in Idaho and Wyoming to venture onto the North Slope in the dark and slip back home by starlight.

In fact, from the book The Wolves of North America, Part II, (1944), the wolf of Utah was the subspecies Canis lupus youngi, one of 23 subspecies of Canis lupus in North America and Mexico.

Then, for the most part, and certainly today, we are not talking about replicating this vast array of wild, diverse wolves but are forced to take wolf from small portions of Canada, which, of course, harbored

numerous subspecies, and literally shove them into our western mountains, pretending only to mimic both the diversity and range of wolves.

That alone suggests why the effort begun half a decade ago with some courage and vision-- and prodding for decades from biologists and conservationists-- can't end. It is inadequate biologically. That is the real test. Simultaneously, it is clear from the hearings that the wolf is deeply cared for. People want it to return home.

While 5-7 subspecies of wolf ranged throughout almost all the West at one time, the effort today focuses on three isolated geographical areas in 3 states of the Northern Rockies (total number of wolves just over 300 with the MT population actually declining). Yet according to The Wolves of North America, the 3 subspecies of MT, WY, ID, CO and UT covered all of the first four states and about 3/4 of Utah. Those populations, wide-ranging and measured in the thousands and thousands, were eliminated in but a few years, eventually triggering the Endangered Species Act and listing of the wolf.

But here we are today with the job literally unfinished and because of everything but biology the FWS is proposing to down-list with the clear cascade intent of de-listing the wolf in the Western states. Present wolf populations are disjunct and small, homogenous and fragile, in that survival and growth "in the wild" has been a short term proposition—4-5 years. Every one of these factors runs counter to the standard principles of species recovery-- small, disjunct and short recovery times. And to add insult to this injury, the wolf is a wide-ranging territorial predator-- that is its fundamental ecological/ evolutionary behavior. Yet this proposal tries to stop such behavior by holding the wolf to the three geographical ranges now populated, assuring altered behavior and likely weakening of diversity.

Wolves travel and the instant they showed up in NW Montana (proof they travel) and were reintroduced to their native homelands of Yellowstone and central Idaho, it was clear and obvious to have suggested otherwise was intellectually disingenuous-- wolves would seek out other homelands in all directions. The only way this could be hampered would be to attempt to prevent it either physically (impossible) or through management-- in this case, down-listing the species, which assures the safeguards for survival are diminished in favor of archaic attitudes of shooting and killing wolves out of mythic fear or a few lost sheep or calves.

This creates a circle of bad judgment attempting to rationalize the small, short-term recovery and disjunct wolf populations as safe. With such homogenous, isolated populations-- that is certainly the intent of the down/delisting context-- they aren't safe, as noted. The evidence is in the history. Wolves are wide-ranging and any attempts to short-circuit that results in threats to the wolf populations either from anthropogenic actions or from a variety of stochastic environmental perturbations. Wolves need to be allowed to travel and range widely. This is the only way to attempt to mimic the way the wolf lived 175 years ago.

While down-listing is a goal and should be, and is not inherently wrong, it isn't time, particularly given the cascading proposal offered by the FWS that suggests down-listing now will incidentally lead to de-listing within the next few years. De-listing the wolf will likely result in its never ending harassment, further restricting its ecological behavior and keeping it living on the edge (see Gordon Haber, "Biological, Conservation and Ethical Implications of Exploiting and Controlling Wolves, Conservation Biology, August 1996.)

Rather than engaging significant discussions surrounding wolf recovery plans for the West, particularly in places like the Uintas here in Utah (almost one million acres of the Uintas are roadless, designated wilderness or lightly developed landscapes and connected to numerous other National Forest lands, not to mention the direct connection to the high Book Cliffs and Tavaputs Plateau on the south), it seems excuses are being offered to absolve the wolf issue.

The wolf represents a valiant effort not yet completed by the FWS. Why try to abandon it when it represents all that is good with FWS, the ESA and the wildness symbolized by wolf? It is a bit ironic that well over 2,500 wolves survive in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin (and not proposed for de-listing because the states involved have not prepared adequate wolf management plans). These states are hardly public land states with an abundance of wild landscapes, yet here in the West (and the Uintas/ Book Cliffs complex in Utah), where at least wildness remains symbolic, the FWS balks at bringing wolf back home and assuring its protection.

Wolf knows the Uintas; it is recognizable. It is home. It is time to come home.

PART TWO

And close wolf is! Yellowstone wolf #253 got caught in a leg hold coyote trap just outside of Morgan. Only hours later another wolf was seen in the same location. Earlier in the year wolves were confirmed in isolated places in the Bear River Range and over the last couple of years wolves have been seen by reliable observers on portions of the Uintas. Indeed, as biologists figured and at about the time frame anticipated, wolves began their long venture to and from ancestral homes, slowly blending the ethereal with four huge paws, powerful jaws and the urge to howl for companions. Most wolf experts believe there is not less than one, but probably not more than four or five now secretly nosing around in what we call Utah and wolf calls home! May the force of mother nature bring them here, keep them safe from our blunders and fully exposed to the wildness of mother nature herself!

PART THREE

The shriek of humans, not the graceful howl of wolves, now dominates the firmament. Not ready with a plan, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) has slid into this discussion, not knowing how to lead and unsure whom to follow. Ironically, UDWR had a powerful start on a wolf plan over two years ago, but let it slide, probably hoping wolves just would skip over Utah and the debate could be forever stalled. That itself says far too much about UDWR as a progressive, biologically-based organization.

Predictably, the spokespersons for ranchers and farmers, not all of them, by any means, have rallied behind an age old cry of fear, one that is ecologically illiterate and bankrupt--more out of fear than anything else.

Ditto for some, certainly not all, in the hunting community, although there is a lot of my, my, my in this yowling. ‘Wolves will take my deer, my elk, my moose, my pronghorn, my bighorn sheep….’ And ironically there is also plain fear among some— a fear of yellow eyes looking through a stand of timber…

And then there is the Utah State Legislature, which has already weighed in with House Joint Resolution 12, Wolves in Utah. Introduced by Representative Mike Styler, it is filled with all of the whereas’ and therefore be it resolveds that you would ever want to read. But to Representative Styler’s credit, HJR 12 is actually a bit hopeful. No, it doesn’t say welcome home wolves, nor does it parade around a bunch of stereotypical anti-wolf language. It suggests that Representative Styler understands something about the history, both biologically and socially, of wolves. He recognizes their status, the legitimate concerns, love and fear of wolves, that they will be coming home to Utah sooner than later, and that a set of plans ought to be prepared. You can see his Resolution, which at the time of this writing had not been passed by the state legislature, at http://www.le.state.ut.us/ or http://www.le.state.ut.us/Documents/bills.htm.

PART FOUR

So what is the fuss?
The wolf as big and bad is the stuff of myth! Bar none, still the best place to understand the depth of this is the crucible stories in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac and Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men. The essence is wolves are social, wide ranging predators. Unlike cougar that hunt and act alone and often in the dark, wolves hunt as a unit, act as a unit, vocally talk as a unit, day and night. They are visible, in other words, and have fangs and eat meat!

This made them an easy target and they are an easy target. While there are dispersing individuals and lone wolves for various reasons, if you find one or call one in, so to speak, you will find the pack. That is how they were so easily exterminated from so much of their homeland. It was never that they were in a rampage of killing the old settler’s sheep or cows or are now in that position. They were the large and obvious predator that is social, visible, doesn’t hibernate. They were in front of our noses and easily rifled and trapped to death.

The myth that evolved from this is they are everywhere, smart, cunning (because of the way they hunt), and vicious. Watching a pack of inefficient, individual killers become an efficient and single-minded predator is stunning and if not controlled and eliminated it will be us next.

That myth has no place today! We understand the biology of wolves— their numbers are not potentially infinite. In fact, as large top level predators, their actual numbers are solely dependent upon intact (unfragmented) territory/home ranges (large), territories with adequate prey and relative isolation from humans and ability to disperse (unfragmented landscapes) to assure social and genetic diversity.

Are you safe with wolves roaming the mountains? The rule of thumb is go to sleep in your tent, listening to wolves howl, with a smile on your face! If you are practicing safe camping in bear country or mountain lion country then you are more than safe from wolves. That is not to say wolves have never attacked humans. They have, but, contrary to self-sustaining myths, it is profoundly rare and almost always in reaction to bad human behavior, not bad wolf behavior.

What about your overweight, trusting, slow (even if you think he is fast), human-like pack member you call Fido? Is he safe with a pack of wild wolves at the head of a wild drainage? Yes, if he is obedient, with you and practicing your safe camping methods. If he is the kind of dog that is half a mile in front of you, chasing everything in sight and manages to avoid a porcupine and skunk, he won’t be greeted with friendly yipping by a pack of wolves. They will likely see him as prey-- dumb, slow and alone at that!

What about deer, elk, moose and other ungulates? Won’t wolves munch away, bringing them to near population collapse? Not a chance. The dance between predators like wolves and their prey is so ancient and complex that it has been noted numerous times that the swiftness of deer, alertness of elk, power of bighorn sheep is, in fact, a result of wolf. The scientific literature is replete with one simple story about the interaction of wolf and prey— habitat. If the habitat is good, unfragmented and integral, then deer and elk will respond to the predation of wolves in a compensatory manner. If the habitat is poor, filled with roads, off road vehicle use, houses, subdivisions-- combined with severe weather conditions-- then in isolated populations wolves can have an additive mortality impact and ungulate populations can be impacted. But it is not wolf that creates this cascade! In general what wolf seems to do is dampen the ungulate population fluctuations. Generally hunting is not affected by wolf populations.

What wolf likely does is change ungulate behavior; it is speculated that for decades without wolf nipping at their heels, ungulates get lazy, for lack of a better word. So wolf may move elk, deer and moose around a bit while they remember what it is like to live in a fully functioning, integral home, replete with friend and foe, gray wolf.

Should ranchers harbor such a deep fear of wolves? No. Where wolves, humans and their livestock commingle—Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Alberta, Montana, Idaho--the mythical predation feats of wolves bear little reality. Attacks on adult cattle are rare, calves and sheep more frequent and there, indeed, will be losses. But none of the literature suggests, based on actual experience, much of it for long periods of time, or on predictive models, that wolves will add a powerful economic impact to Utah’s agricultural economy. Losses will be felt in isolated places and will be meaningful to some sheep operators, thus it is important to develop a wolf depredation compensation program based, for example, on the Defenders of Wildlife compensation program. Already, Defenders has agreed to compensate a sheep permittee for loss of some sheep to a lone dispersal wolf in northern Utah during the summer of 2002.

PART FIVE

The essence of a Utah wolf plan:
1. Assure that large unfragmented and unroaded habitats are properly protected and connected so that wolves may disperse from presently occupied areas in Idaho and Wyoming and may adequately disperse within Utah to assure viable populations, independent packs and genetic diversity. This means assuring the Bear River Range looming above Cache Valley, anchored by the Mt. Naomi Wilderness and the adjacent and contiguous roadless areas, the Green River Corridor, the High Uintas Wilderness and surrounding roadless areas, Book Cliffs backcountry and roadless areas need to be firmly and vigorously left alone! They represent a huge and wild region unmatched in Utah, all of it firmly attached to the nearly 800,00 acres of High Uintas roadless and wilderness!

2. To keep these core wolf areas secure, it is imperative that these roadless lands be closed to snowmobile and ATV use.These activities act, essentially, as roads and bring people and disturbances into sensitive habitats at critical times.

3. While wolves and domestic livestock can be compatible, the only long term solution, particularly in sheep country, is to remove sheep permits on these core wolf areas of public land. Because livestock grazing permits are so crucial to ranchers and represent both economic value and a deep social value part of the wolf compensation fund should be utilized to also purchase at appropriate value public land grazing permits to be held permanently by the land management agency as a vacated allotment dedicated to wildlife. All ungrazed areas should remain ungrazed. In these core wolf areas all allotments should be phased out over a 10 year period to allow the permittees an opportunity to seek additional areas for grazing of their sheep.

4. Under no conditions can recreational hunting of any wolves be allowed. There is no biological rationale for sport hunting; wolves regulate themselves through strong territory behavior, quality habitat isolated from intensive human impacts, pack function and prey base. To subject the wolf to Utah Division of Wildlife Resource hunting/wildlife decision making through the infamous Regional Advisory Councils will assure only input from the hook and bullet club and from wildlife managers set on big game management rather than ecologically based management. Research shows packs can become dysfunctional when heavily hunted resulting in more problem wolves, not fewer.

5. Recognizing that some predation and threats to public safety may occur, it is recognized that some lethal control may occasionally be necessary but only after compensation efforts are initiated, altering grazing patterns and the problem human behavior (control of pets, for example), and then only the offending wolf should be targeted. Transplanting a single wolf is often futile since wolves are so territorial and strongly oriented to their pack. Transplanting entire packs has only rarely been attempted and infrequently successful. It is the classic example of a last resort management process. Often predator control leads to dysfunctional wolf pack behavior and more problems.

6. As a wolf plan is developed by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources it must be founded on these sound principles and it must be developed in an open public process. To this point the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has shown, in spite of statements to the contrary that it will open the process beyond the Regional Wildlife Council (RACs), that it intends to use outdated and exclusive public participation methods tying the wolf education and planning effort directly to the RACs. These five RACs are composed of hunters, local officials, agricultural representatives, sportsmen-related business and, at most two token, nonconsumptive wildlife supporters. The RACs’ mission is to develop hunting proposals and plans for Utah’s wildlife. Thus, from the outset the process is a recreational based hunting endeavor where wildlife biology and ecology is rarely discussed, let alone understood! A wolf education effort and plan developed under these constraints/restraints is intentionally exclusive. It is easy for UDWR to broaden the public planning and participation effort by simply conducting all wolf meetings outside of the RAC process. While all decisions must go through the Utah Wildlife Board, at least the planning and participation process should be completed independently of the myopic RACs.

A defining moment awaits Utah wildness. Let our voices howl with that of the wolf!

Dick Carter

A few references that went into this article:

  • Wolves in Utah: An Analysis of Potential Impacts and Recommendations for Management. 2000. College of Natural Resources, Utah State University.
  • Gray Wolves in Utah. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. 2003
  • Biological, Conservation, and Ethical Implications of Exploiting and Controlling Wolves. Gordon Haber. Conservation Biology, August 1996.
  • Large Carnivore Conservation in the Rocky Mountains of the United States and Canada. Conservation Biology, August 1996.
  • See also the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Yellowstone National Park web sites for information on the wolf reintroduction plan and issues surrounding the listing of the wolf under the Endangered Species Act. Of course, Barry Lopez’s book, Of Wolves and Men, Aldo Leopold’s seminal book, A Sand County Almanac, and the recent book, Shadow Mountain, by Renee Askins, are good starting points for understanding wolf.

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