A President and Predators

by Frank Van Nuys, author of Varmints and Victims; Predator Control in the American West

9780700621316From the distraught and possibly jaundiced perspective of folks on the left wing of the political spectrum, “emboldened” has become a go-to word to describe opponents on the right. Conservatives. White nationalists. Anti-Semites. Racists. Xenophobes. Misogynists. All have been emboldened by the triumph of Donald Trump, not to mention liberated by the presumptive death of “political correctness.” For environmentalists, the new administration’s determination to steamroll “job-killing” regulations and Congress’s moves to eliminate nettlesome rules, deconstruct the Environmental Protection Agency, and gut the Endangered Species Act signify other alarming ramifications of that which the emboldened are capable.

Apparently, opponents of decades-long programs to reintroduce and facilitate the recovery of predators are feeling emboldened as well. The introduction of legislation in January to remove federal protection for wolves in four states – Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Wyoming – underscored a potentially significant shift in the perpetual conflict over management of predators. Occurring just days before Trump’s inauguration, the bill may have reflected a sense of confidence on the part of farmers, ranchers, trappers, hunters, and others critical of wolf recovery that a Republican administration held considerable promise for transferring the bulk of wolf management decision-making from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to the affected states. In broader terms, elements intent on rolling back the government’s oversight in wildlife management and environmental regulation should feel a sense of giddy anticipation at the arrival of a new era of relaxed federal controls and states’ rights.

gray-wolf_01_ngsversion_1484679603276_adapt_676_1The Gray Wolf State Management Act of 2017 (H.R. 424 and S. 164) orders the Secretary of the Interior to reissue final rules issued in December 2011 for the Western Great Lakes, and in September 2012 for Wyoming, that had removed wolves from Endangered Species Act protection when not on federal properties subject to more focused protection regimes (such as national parks). Court challenges by wolf advocates had led to suspension of the delisting directives for those regions. Those advocates fear, and anti-wolf forces hope, that the administrative and legal stalemate can be broken and predator protections weakened, at least. By barring judicial review, the proposed legislation removes one of the key tactics utilized by wolf supporters since the first attempt to delist wolves in the Northern Rockies in 2002. That is nothing new, it turns out. Congress’s unilateral removal of protection for wolves in Idaho and Montana in April 2011, signed into law by President Barack Obama as part of a hard-fought compromise on enacting a budget and debt-relief package, also blocked judicial review.

Opponents of delisting claim wholesale destruction of wolf populations in the four states will certainly occur should the suspended rules be enacted, and they deplore the wolf hunting seasons that have taken place in Idaho and Montana, and, briefly, Wyoming, over the last several years. State game agencies maintain that it is in their interest to carefully monitor harvest levels to avoid relisting, and, frankly, population estimates in Idaho and Montana seem to bear that out. Idaho’s estimate of 786 wolves in 2015 represents an increase of close to 100 wolves over the 2012 estimate that I noted in Varmints and Victims. [https://idfg.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/idaho-wolf-monitoring-progress-report-2015.pdf ,p. 70] Montana’s estimated wolf population is still in the hundreds while roughly 4,000 range across the western Great Lakes region. Wolf backers may be suspicious of game agencies’ statistics, but there is no serious reason to doubt their general accuracy. Wolf management plans agreed to by federal and state officials require the states in the Northern Rockies to maintain a population of at least 150 wolves and at least 15 breeding pairs, and both Idaho and Montana exceed those minimums by significant amounts. To this point, natural increase and migration appear to have prevented crashing wolf populations despite hundreds lost to hunters and trappers each year. Unless Congress or the Trump administration decide to target those benchmarks, wolves are in no immediate danger of being annihilated when placed under state management.

Not surprisingly, when stories about the harm being done or contemplated by either emboldened “wolf haters” or defensive “wolf lovers” come across our social media feeds or appear in newspapers, we react according to our political and environmental predilections. I am as guilty of that as anyone. Yet, as someone who has been cheered by the slow and steady recovery of mountain lions, grizzly bears, and wolves in parts of the West, I remain cautious about jumping to conclusions about what impacts the proposed legislation will actually have. Judging from the relatively stable populations in the Northern Rockies since wolf hunting began a few years ago, even the most emboldened among the animal’s detractors in Wyoming and the Great Lakes states should not look forward to revival of a wolf-free environment. On the other side, friends of wolves can be skeptical but not necessarily panicked by the current drift of policy. It’s a long game, this tussle over predators. Stay vigilant, certainly, but it is unlikely, at least in this corner of the constant adjusting to life in the Alice-in-Wonderland fog of Trump’s America, that the apocalypse is nigh.

The Gray Wolf State Management Act of 2017 has recently been subjected to some informational hearing activity, and agricultural interests are pressing for expedited passage to provide additional protection to livestock entering calving season. Once the bill emerges from committee and becomes the subject of additional debate, amendment, and eventual passage, emboldened combatants on both sides will be ready to rumble. At least a constitutional legislative process still exists and wolves cannot be simply outlawed and their extermination decreed from on high sans some semblance of public input. Although a dubious proposition to the most jaded among the nation’s beleaguered citizenry, the United States still operates under the rule of law. The most enduring challenge for opponents of delisting and wolf hunting is indeed embedded in the intent of the Endangered Species Act itself, a fact all sides in the predator debates need to acknowledge. The goal of achieving recovery for a listed population, then delisting and allowing states to manage that population was designed to achieve measurable outcomes that would satisfy most, if not all, stakeholders. This is, according to media accounts, what the Fish and Wildlife Service would like to see happen. As much as it must pain millions of Americans who love wolves and hate the idea of losing even one to trapping or hunting, this proposed legislation does not represent a particularly radical departure from the always contentious process of making policy for predator management.

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Frank Van Nuys is professor of history at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology and author of Americanizing the West: Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship, 1890–1930.