What is happening?
In the 1900s, wolf populations within the U.S. were almost hunted to extinction due to fear of their effects on livestock. In 1973, wolves became federally protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and were protected for many years until 2011, when it was decided that wolf populations had successfully recovered. With rising wolf populations in many areas, federal agencies began to step back and passed the management of this species to state governments. States along the northern Rocky Mountains began to propose laws that would ease and expand the hunting and killing of gray wolves in these areas. In the past few months, 500 wolves in northwestern states, such as Idaho and Montana have been hunted and killed by game hunters. This sets a major drawback to the successful species reintroduction in the region for the past few decades.
The wolf population in Montana was down to about 60 individuals in the 1990s. Due to a successful species reintroduction project, which consists of intentionally introducing a species in a habitat for the purpose of conserving their population, the state now has about 800-1200 wolves. State agencies removed wolves under their listed species in 2021, with proposed laws that seemed too lax even in the eyes of many avid game hunters. With these new laws, hunters can acquire a permit that would allow them to do things such as bait and kill however many wolves they see fit. During the 2021-2022 hunting season, hunters killed about 327 wolves, which is about 35% of Montana’s wolf population.
In May 2021, the governor signed a new law that permitted hunters to kill 90% of their gray wolf population. This was the largest amount of wolf kills that the state had ever permitted. Proponents of this law claimed that the wolf population in the state had gotten out of hand since they became protected in 1973. Like the proposed laws in Montana, the new laws in Idaho allowed hunters to kill an unlimited number of wolves and kill them by shooting them down from an airplane. This type of hunting enraged conservationists and some game hunters who viewed this to be outrageous.
Why is this important?
Wolf-hunting by humans can help in regulating ungulate and other wolf prey populations in the area. Done properly, this can be a way to maintain the balance in the ecosystem while helping some hunters to put food on their tables. The problem here is that new hunting laws are too permissive to the point that game hunters are bringing down the wolf population to an unhealthy size.
As apex predators, gray wolves play an important role in their ecosystem. Like mountain lions, wolves are keystone species. This means that their presence largely defines the health and status of their entire ecosystem. Wolves help maintain biodiversity by keeping the prey population levels in check, therefore providing an opportunity for many plants and other animals to persist. Removing gray wolves from the ecosystem can lead to overpopulation of their prey (e.g. ungulates and squirrels), which can strip the vegetation in the area and ultimately lead to the decline of biodiversity in the ecosystem. Scavengers, like ravens and raccoons, benefit from the carcasses that wolves leave behind after successful hunting and feeding.
Right now, environmental conservationists and researchers from northwestern states are petitioning government agencies to reconsider the new wolf hunting laws in these states.