Interior Department Leaders Standing Idly by As Massacre of Yellowstone Wolves Unfolds

Cam Sholly, the Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, had the right sales pitch but knocked on the wrong door.

On December 16th, he wrote to Montana Governor Greg Gianforte and asked him to stop allowing private hunters and trappers to bait the borders of Yellowstone and to kill wolves who wander from the safe confines of the park.  The wolves he wants to protect draw the eager eyes of millions of tourists who trek to Yellowstone to see these packs on the landscape. Montana’s reckless hunting and trapping scheme — facilitated by baiting and bounties — has already claimed at least 16 wolves from the world’s first national park, with Idaho and Wyoming hunters killing four others. One family of wolves, known as the Phantom Lake Pack, has been wiped out.

But going to Gianforte was the wrong strategy.  Montana already had a law in place forbidding Montana’s wildlife management agency from establishing buffer zones to protect wolves outside of any national park. Gianforte himself took advantage in March 2021, trapping and then shooting a wolf just outside of Yellowstone. He failed to complete the proper trapping training program.

Sholly might as well have gone to the Hangman for leniency.

The better option would have been to go to his own boss – Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to head the Interior Department.

Deb Haaland’s Astonishing Failure to Defend Wolves

Haaland had a strong record of on animal welfare and conservation as a one-term Congresswoman from New Mexico before being tapped by President Biden to lead the nation’s primary land and wildlife management agency. Native American leaders throughout the United States appealed to her to help the wolves, who are part of the creation story for tribes across the United States. The Potowatomi, Chippewa, and Ottawa in the Great Lakes believe the gray wolf created the land on which we all live, while the Pawnee felt such a close kinship that their hand-signal for wolf is the same as the hand-signal for the people in their tribes. Conservation and animal welfare groups have also appealed to Haaland, with letters and legal petitions, as well.  And so did 100 Senators and Representatives who wrote to her directly.

To date, all their entreaties have been met with silence.

Haaland has multiple tools to remedy the dire circumstance for wolves. She has authority under the Endangered Species Act to conduct an emergency listing of a species at urgent risk. She also controls a vast array of lands around Yellowstone National Park. So, whether by making an emergency ESA listing, or by closing public lands to hunting, she could spare Yellowstone wolves.

She even has the prior promises of her Department to ground her action. In a prior 2009 rulemaking that the Department proposed for de-listing of wolves in the Northern Rockies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service promised that “if a State changed their regulatory framework to authorize the unlimited and unregulated taking of wolves, a condition we have previously determined threatened a wolf population, emergency listing would be immediately pursued.”

That’s precisely what’s happened in Montana and Idaho, and emergency listing is essential to forestall even more killing.

But for months, she and other leaders at the Interior Department have stood idly by as the worst slaughter of wolves in a century proceeds in the Northern Rockies. This has been a colossal failure of action by the Interior Secretary.

Appealing to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to Close National Forests to Wolf Killing

While not relenting in our moral and scientific appeals to Haaland, we are also asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to do his part. Today, Animal Wellness Action and the Center, along with other organizations clustered in the Northern Rockies, asked Secretary Vilsack to prohibit the hunting and trapping of wolves in the National Forests (Caribou-Targhee, Bridger-Teton, Custer Gallatin, and Shoshone) surrounding Yellowstone National Park in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to protect wolves from an unprecedented assault by the states. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS), which is part of the USDA, has responsibility for 190 million acres of National Forests.

“The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) must not be a passive actor when it comes to wildlife management when native wildlife species are threatened by external threats. Indeed, under 36 CFR § 261.50 the agency has the legal authority to close or restrict uses of national forests, while § 261.53 allows for ‘special closures’ to protect ‘[t]hreatened, endangered, rare, unique, or vanishing species of plants, animals, birds or fish,’” the 20 organizations wrote.

If Haaland won’t spare the wolves, maybe Vilsack will.

National Forest lands are core habitat for wolves, and the USFS has a critical role to play in maintaining protections for wolves on these federal public lands. State access to national forests comes with responsibilities, and when those responsibilities go unfilled and states let loose extreme acts of violence against rare species, then the federal government has a duty to intervene.  State hunting and trapping in national forests is a privilege, not a right.

These wolf-killing strategies were primarily driven by politicians, not state wildlife management authorities. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission opposed the legislature’s maneuver because it removed wildlife management decisions from the Commission and the Department’s wolf experts. The Legislature even authorized the use of hounds to hunt wolves – a de facto animal fighting situation. Montana also adopted expanded regulations removing management quotas from units bordering the National Park, allowing a range of inhumane hunting methods at odds with state prohibitions against cruelty to animals and accepted codes of hunting ethics, including the use of bait to lure wolves outside the park. These states also allow bounty programs, allowing hunters and trappers deploying the most inhumane and unsporting methods to profit from their use.

All of this makes little ecological or economic sense. Dozens of world-renowned wildlife biologists and scientists attest to the cascade effects of the ecological services wolves provide. A recently released study pointed out that wolves control deer populations and reduce the frequency of deer-auto collisions, saving human lives and reducing the economic costs of these collisions. Yellowstone biologists have found that wolves move sedentary deer and elk populations from overgrazed areas, enabling aspen and willow to reclaim ground for the first time in more than half a century. 

Business leaders grounded in the gateway communities around Yellowstone recently wrote to federal authorities and asked for relief, believing that the tourists will stop spending and their businesses will be left high and dry after people stop coming to see wolves. Any surviving wolves will have learned to fear and avoid people, diminishing the wildlife-watching experience.  As the Bozeman Daily Chronicle wrote over the weekend, the situation in Montana “doesn’t just make Montana look bad to the rest of the nation; it is threatening the viability of the species within the park…”

It’s too late perhaps for 1,000 wolves already killed in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming across their range.  But it’s a life-and-death matter for the survivors.  Even action this late, even in one part of their range, can bring merciful relief for some wolf families.

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