By Pam Linn

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An ecological dilemma

The federal government has decided to remove Endangered Species Act protections from gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. The announcement last week was challenged by a coalition of environmental and animal rights groups.

They wasted no time in mailing solicitations to members, rife with the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that often turns off as many donors as it motivates. Having given my share to causes I believe winnable, my mailbox overflows with passionate pleas for money to fund ad campaigns and lawsuits to stop “the carnage” they predict will ensue.

Defenders of Wildlife sent a 2008 limited edition wolf print by photographer Jack Mills asking for my emergency donation to protect wolves in Alaska and the lower 48 states.

Well, I’ve got my own wolf photos, thank you, and trying to tell Alaska what to do may be the ultimate exercise in futility. (Picture Sen. Ted Stevens screaming, “No! No! Never!” when colleagues suggested he abandon that mother of all pork, the Bridge to Nowhere.)

Among Defenders’ 10-point action plan is a lawsuit to block delisting the gray wolf, which was reintroduced in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming a dozen years ago after being hunted to extinction during the ’20s.

Now, there are folks who just hate wolves. Period. Maybe it’s the “Little Red Riding Hood” syndrome; or the Three Little Pigs trying to build their houses against the Big Bad Wolf who huffs and puffs, and blows down their efforts. Only walls of brick survive the wolf’s assault. (Did the stonemasons union produce this tale?)

Scientists, however, generally agree that removing the top predator wreaks havoc on any ecosystem. Without wolves, the elk population in Yellowstone grew so large they endangered willows and other plants growing along rivers. Smaller animals, river otters and such, in turn, were endangered by the lack of streamside feed and cover. When the wolves returned, elk sought better cover away from waterways and the flora and fauna recovered.

But some hunters just can’t wait to gun down the big bad guys. And wolf advocates are roused to act in their defense.

And heaven knows, remarks by politicians, such as Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, who promised his state would kill more than 800 wolves, have inflamed the issue. Otter also pronounced he would be first in line for a hunting permit and first to kill a wolf when federal protections are removed.

Delisting occurs 30 days after the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is published in the Federal Register.

The three states have written wolf management plans that have been approved by the federal government. These plans include hunting seasons. Montana wildlife commissioners approved regulations last week for an inaugural hunt this fall. Idaho may also allow trapping and perhaps even aerial shooting of individual wolfs or whole packs. Wyoming officials aren’t saying much. Their plan was last to be approved by federal officials.

The environmental coalition appears to be growing daily from six to nine to 11 organizations signing on to the lawsuit last week. Among those I generally support are Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity. So far, I’ve been on the side of the NRDC in most of its lawsuits and continue to back its position on listing polar bears as endangered, which would force the administration to pass regulations to curb greenhouse gasses and protect the melting sea ice the bears need to hunt seals (their main food source) in summer.

Herein lies the dilemma. Wolves have done well in the Greater Yellowstone area. Their numbers have increased from 66 Canadian transplants in 1996 to an estimated 1,500 in and around Yellowstone National Park. The very wildlife biologists who are responsible for this success story seem to agree that the time has come for management to become more local. Under delisting, federal officials will oversee state management for five years.

But not all environmentalists agree. The Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, supports the animal’s removal from the Endangered Species List. Chairman Todd Graham said the best way to manage wolves is to bring all sides to the table and hammer out a balanced plan based on sound science. This would seem to require agreement among the three states whose management plans differ on several points. But Doug Honnold, an attorney with the nonprofit group EarthJustice, says independent scientists tell us we need a couple thousand wolves and we’re short of that. He says politics drives government claims. “If you’re a lowly wildlife biologist and you have a governor breathing down your neck, how can you say politics is not having an impact?” Good point.

Prior to delisting, the feds made the three states commit to maintaining a combined minimum population of 300 wolves and 30 mating pairs. They’ve agreed to exceed that count, each state maintaining 150 wolves and 15 mating pairs. It’s my understanding that only the alpha pair breed and if the female is killed there may be no pups for a year. I guess the experts must have factored that in.

Still, I’m not sure on which side of this debate to stand. As much as I love wolves, and loathe the mentality of certain governors, this time I may just put my money on polar bears.