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What Will Become Of Wolves?

The howl and fleeting sight of a wolf can send chills down your spine... Imagine that the forest is crossed regularly by the beautiful, wild canid. To stand in morning mist, to feel the presence and look into the eyes of a black wolf, as I was fortunate enough to do in June 1999 in Yellowstone's LaMar Valley, then watch the wolf carry the elk calf leg she was gnawing up the hill to her den of pups is an image I will not forget.

There is much talk these days of WHAT IF.... what if wolves make it down from the Yellowstone Plateau, the Teton forests, through the Wyoming Range, across the Red Desert and 1-80, south into Utah (a true gauntlet of man's vehicles, weapons, and livestock) and the High Uintas? Then what? In a perfect world, they would travel here safely, find mates from members who made the trek, establish packs and raise pups who will know the Uintas as home.

Of course, they will make it. Smart, social, and always searching for wild land, already sightings of lone wolves have occurred on the North Slope of the Uintas. This is typical for a wide dispersal predator to move out, literally investigate new habitats and head back home. Eventually, the new territory--in this case, the wild, native homeland of the Uintas-- will be colonized and wolves will be back home.

A perfect world we don't live in and that is particularly troubling for wolves who must find a way to live in deeply fragmented wild areas filled with people who are still governed by the myth of big bad wolf. Since late January, 10 wolves hav e been shot in Central Idaho, destroying the White Cloud and Twin Peaks packs. The Stanley Pack is at risk, with summer cattle being turned onto public forest land and ranchers' intolerance and fear rising. Wolves in Arizona and New Mexico have faced nothing but trouble: release, capture, re-release and capture again.... But this is not wolf trouble; it is human unwillingness to allow wolves to be wolves.

Prompted no doubt by the fall 1999 sighting of a wolf near Soda Springs, Idaho, just north of Utah's Cache Valley, UDWR initiated a wolf planning process for the state and presented its slide show to the State Legislative Interim Committee on Natural Resources, Agriculture and the Environment in May. Noting that wolves could arrive anytime (something many of us noted when wolves were first reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and was routinely ignored by wildlife managers in Utah), UDWR expects to form a Wolf Discussion Group to develop a Management Plan (as was done for cougars and bears) and will include wolves on the agenda at October and December Regional Advisory Councils (RAC) and the Utah Wildlife Board (UWB) Meeting.

This is hardly hopeful since the RACs and UWB have distinguished themselves as the classic antithesis of wild life. They have increased cougar sport hunting, increased bear sport hunting and are even entertaining the idea of a spring bear hunt-- something many of us stopped in 1992. And just recently they pushed the antiquated and ludicrous idea of a predator trigger, wherein wolves will be targeted for even increased killing when deer and elk numbers drop below UDWR recreation based thresholds. It is an idea long ago dropped by wildlife ecologists but now caressed by Utah wildlife managers.

As the largest member of the dog family, Canidae, an adult male gray wolf weighs 70-100 pounds; females weigh 55-85 pounds. Wolves measure 5-6 feet from nose to tail, and stand 26-32 inches at the shoulder. Capable of fast, far-ranging travel a nd frequent hunting expeditions, a wolf's sense of smell and hearing is keen: he can reportedly hear other wolves howling up to 6 miles away. Gray wolves reach sexual maturity at about two years of age; many of the reintroduced wolves are reaching th at age. Some 3,000 wolves live in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. Viable populations of wolves live in Italy. Wolf researchers in Alaska have shown that heavy hunting of wolves has changed wolf behavior, including howling patterns, making packs much more individualistic and less pack-oriented-- in other words, dysfunctional families

Not all news is bad, however. In January the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver overturned a lower court's 1997 ruling that the 1995 and 1996 Yellowstone wolf reintroductions were illegal. (To speed the natural recovery of wolves in the Nor thern Rockies, wolves were released with the ESA "experimental designation" into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Experimental designation under section 10[j] of the ESA allows ranchers to shoot wolves if caught in the act of killing livestock on private lands.) The 1997 ruling, spurred by an American Farm Bureau Federation lawsuit, claimed that such designation was illegal and put any naturally occurring wolf populations at undue risk (as if the AFBF cared about naturally occurring wild wolves!), since a naturally occurring wolf would be fully protected under the ESA. The 10th Circuit Court said, "Discerning no conflict between the challenged experimental population rules and the Endangered Species Act, we reverse the district court s order and judgment."

But the U.S. Fish and Wild-life Service (USFWS) is apparently not interested in additional efforts to reintroduce the big canid. Because wolves have reproduced readily in and around Yellowstone, the USFWS plans to propose this summer to downlist to threatened or delist the species in the West and to delist them altogether in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. Either way this will severely hinder the ability of wolves to move and live in their native Utah homeland. Critics of this proposal, we have joined with the Predator Education Fund, Utah Environmental Congress, Wild Utah Project and numerous biologists to urge USFWS that it is premature to downlist the wolf. Its five year freedom in Yellowstone is far too short of a period and its population nowhere near broad enough to determine the ecological integrity of the species.

According to a survey conducted by Utah State University wildlife researchers, most Utahns aren't afraid of big bad wolf. We know some ranchers have concerns--that is expected. And not surprisingly, some wildlife managers and hunters harbor the same concerns--a literal fear that wolves will make their stay in the woods less safe and that their never ending me-me-me attitude will be compromised by wolves actually turning elk, deer and moose back into real wild animals, not nearly tame game!

So the question is this: given the troubles wolves have faced outside the Yellowstone and River of No Return populations, can we justify what surely faces its return to the Uintas? In our hearts, in our visions and dreams, we want the wolf to co me home. But if the gatekeepers are hell-bent on maintaining the old order, is the senseless killing of magnificent wolves worth it?

This is the deeply painful dilemma we must face. Without a wild showing-- not just a few wild voices, but a real wild showing-- wolves may return to Utah, only to be forced out and back into the deepest shadows.

Margaret Pettis and Dick Carter

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