Wolves once roamed freely across much of the land that is now called North America. Indigenous peoples actively managed the land responsibly, including lands that many in the conservation movement call “wilderness”. Starting in the 1500s through 1800s, European settlers, spreading across the continent, stole the land and its resources, committed genocide of indigenous peoples, and began exploiting wildlife to the point of extermination.
By the 1940s, wolves were extirpated from the landscape, thanks to government-sponsored bounty programs.
In 1974, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) was listed on the federal Endangered Species Act. Wolves slowly began to disperse back into the northern reaches of the US from Canada, and in the 1990s, wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone and Idaho.
As wolves returned to states where they had once lived, state wildlife agencies developed wolf management plans under their own state Endangered Species Acts, working in tandem with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which managed federal protections.
While wolf populations have slowly recovered in the 30 years since reintroduction, they still only occupy less than 10% of their historic range in the US. As wolf populations began to grow and conflicts arose with hunters and ranchers unhappy with this keystone predator returning to “their” land, states began removing wolves from local ESA protections and allowing wolf hunts. In 2020, the Trump administration removed the gray wolf from federal protection.
Those of us who are settlers must recognize how our long history of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and racist policies were driving forces that led us to where we are now: trying desperately to reverse the destruction of wildlife and the environment before it’s too late, as wildfires rage, climate change threatens our near future, and our culture wars divide us into those who want to save keystone species vs. those who want to keep ranching cows on public lands for our dinner plates.
To dig deeper, check out the videos and readings on our Learn page.
Reforming Wildlife Management
Reenvision state fish & wildlife departments
Most state fish and wildlife departments have “providing opportunities for fishing & hunting” as part of their mission statements. In addition, since many hunters and anglers pay for hunting and fishing licenses, these groups tend to feel of sense of ownership toward their state Departments of Fish & Wildlife. These groups in turn, pressure the Commissioners to focus on the interests of hunters and anglers. As a result, these agencies serve the primary interest of “sportsmen”, while the interests of the members of the public that do not hunt, fish or trap are given less consideration. More needs to be done to find alternative forms of funding and the public needs to be educated that their tax dollars do indeed fund a large percentage of Department budgets. Fish & Wildlife Departments need to represent more than just special interest groups.
In Western States, the governors currently appoint fish and wildlife commissioners. These Commissions have authority over agency policy, particularly predator management. Until we switch over to a process that prioritizes having Fish & Wildlife Commissions that are scientifically qualified, and represent more than just fishing & hunting interests, we will continue to see Commissioners that prioritize the interests of ranchers, hunters & anglers.
Reduce grazing on federal public lands
Grazing is ecologically damaging to land in the arid West. Non-native livestock are responsible for soil compaction, destruction of wetlands and riparian zones, a decrease in water retention and aquifer recharge, soil erosion, flooding, and a net-loss of biodiversity. Livestock grazing contributes to the spread of harmful invasive plant species, which greatly affects the West’s historic fire regime.
These destructive grazing practices are heavily subsidized by taxpayers every year to the tune of tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars. More work needs to be done to reduce and mitigate grazing on public lands.
Wildlife Services: Killing Funded by Your Tax Dollars
For a primer about Wildlife Services, read the 2015 HSUS report, “Wildlife Disservice: The USDA Wildlife Services’ Inefficient and Inhumane Wildlife Damage Management Program”
Every year the USDA Wildlife Services kills millions of animals, including wolves. coyotes, black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, beavers, birds, and countless other species, including house pets. The agency is an indiscriminate killer that uses neck snares and foot hold traps, toxic cyanide (M44’s) and aerial gunning (helicopters) to slaughter native wildlife across the country. This agency historically and still primarily serves the interests of the livestock industry, at taxpayers’ expense.
Gray wolf recovery has been slow because the US federal government prematurely abandoned recovery efforts in order to appease powerful livestock and sportsmen interests. Currently, state fish and game agencies have authority over gray wolf “management”. State-sanctioned hunting, trapping/snaring, and hounding seasons have resulted in thousands of wolves being killed. Massing increases in killing in Wisconsin, Idaho, and Montana thanks to federal delisting and new laws passed in those states in 2021 threaten to decimate any progress that has been made on wolf recovery.
Ban trapping and snaring on federal public lands
Leg-hold traps, conibear traps, and neck snares are indiscriminate killers that have no place on federal public lands. There have been many incidents of dogs and endangered, non-target species being trapped, snared, and/or killed on public lands in states like Idaho and Montana. Some states currently require individuals to check their traps once every 72 hours, while other states do not require trappers to check them for days or weeks, or don’t have trap check time laws. Wildlife advocates should urge their elected leaders to introduce legislation that would ban leg-hold traps, conibear traps, and neck snares.
End wildlife derbies and the hunting of carnivores
The best available science suggests that carnivores, including gray wolves, are self-regulating species. Carnivores don’t need to be managed, they have evolved with their prey over thousands of years, with species populations constantly fluctuating.
The livestock industry and sportsmen groups have continued to hold cruel wildlife derby contests “for fun”. The trapping, snaring, hounding, and trophy-hunting of carnivores runs counter to public sentiment and ethics. Much has been done over the years to work on banning these wildlife derbies, progress has been made, but there is so much work to be done.