The gray wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountains is being dropped from the federal endangered species list on Friday, and on Thursday I just happened to run smack into Ed Bangs, the wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (Such is life at the Aspen Environment Forum.)
Bangs oversaw the celebrated and controversial reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 and 1996, when the nice Canadians gave the U.S. government 66 wolves to set free in a region that hadn’t seen the carnivores since 1926 (though about 60 had come down from Canada on their own into Glacier National Park in northwest Montana). Since then, the wolf population in the region has grown at about 24 percent a year, to a point where there are now more than 1,500 spread out across some 110,000 square miles in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Bangs and his crew say that’s a viable population and their work is now done. Except for dealing with the lawsuits from enviros, that is.
Eleven conservation groups — including Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club — are filing suit to challenge the delisting. They contend that the wolf population is not yet genetically healthy, and that 2,000 to 5,000 wolves in the region should be the goal. They also don’t like the plan to hand wolf management over to the states, which are poised to allow wolf hunting.
I pulled Bangs aside for a few minutes to get his take on it all:
Is now the right time to delist?
Absolutely. We’ve got a lot of wolves. The states [Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming] have all got plans that will assure that there will be at least 1,000 wolves in the Rocky Mountains forever. The state fish and game agencies have great professional organizations to do wildlife management; they’ll do a better job than we could do.
The states had to come up with management plans?
Yep. We reviewed the plans and we approved them. We approved Montana’s and Idaho’s in 2004, and we rejected Wyoming’s plan. So they went back to the drawing board, and there was litigation, and in 2007 they produced a new wolf management plan that we approved. They addressed all the issues we had with the one we rejected.
You’re being sued over this?
For sure. We’ve been sued over every single wolf thing, by both sides, all the time.
But this time it’s just the conservationists suing. What do you think is their main concern?
Mistrust of the states. They argue that 1,000 wolves isn’t enough. Most of it boils down to they just want more wolves in more places, and they think the Endangered Species Act is the better way to get them there than to have states do wolf management.
The states will have hunting of wolves, just like they do for deer, elk, mountain lions, black bears, and people don’t like the idea of that, even though we, the agencies, kill about 10 percent of the wolves each year for problems. But the idea of people hunting them, some people find that objectionable. And I understand that. But my job is the science and the biology of restoring viable wolf populations. It isn’t the moral aspect of whether we should be hunting or not.
What if the wolves aren’t doing well in a few years?
There is a mandatory five-year monitoring period by the Fish and Wildlife Service, so we have to watch it over pretty closely. And if things go to hell in a handbasket, we’ll step back in.
So are you out of a job?
I hope so! I’m looking for something else to do with the rest of my life. I’m hoping that by summer or fall I’ll be on a beach with a rum drink in my hand watching for sea turtles.
One last question: What’s your favorite animal?
Wolverines, I love wolverines. I’m wild about wild animals, but wolves are just another animal to me. Wolves are OK.
But wolverines — they are so cool.
Bangs will be on a panel on wolves here at the forum on Saturday, but unfortunately it conflicts with a panel I’m moderating, so I won’t be able to attend. On the panel with Bangs will be Will Stolzenburg, a wildlife biologist and journalist who has a different view on the delisting.
Stolzenburg told me he thinks the USFWS did its job and planned appropriately to keep wolf numbers where it wants them, but he’s concerned that the agency didn’t consider the big picture. He would have liked to see a more ecologically based decision that considered whether the wolf will really be able to fill its historic role in the ecosystem. Stolzenburg has written a forthcoming book on this very topic: the ecological roles of the world’s great predators and the consequences of their disappearance: Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and the Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators.