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.
As of February 10, 2022 a U.S. District Court Judge reinstated federal protections that were removed under the Trump administration. Though this is a big win for science based decision making, wolves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and parts of eastern Washington and Oregon were exempt from this reinstatement and are still in need of federal protections.
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 our recommended films and readings.
Reforming Wildlife Management
Re-envision state fish & wildlife departments
In Western States, Governors currently appoint fish and wildlife commissioners. These commissioners have authority over agency policy including predator management. Until we transition to a process that prioritizes appointing commissioners that are scientifically qualified, absent of private interests like hunting, trapping and agri- business, we will continue to see commissioners that abuse power and privilege to leverage their personal agenda. Fish & Wildlife Departments need to reflect the diversity of interests of the broad public and rectify the historic prioritization of special interest groups that put profit over wildlife.
Read an overview of what’s currently considered “wildlife management” in the US here.
Watch a great video presentation about Fish & Wildlife Commission Reform here.
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. With 60% of land in the world dedicated to livestock grazing we see a decrease in water retention and aquifer recharge, soil erosion that leads to flooding, and a net-loss of biodiversity. Livestock grazing contributes to the spread of harmful invasive plant species and the degradation of native symbiotic relationships.
These destructive grazing practices are heavily subsidized by taxpayers every year to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. The work to mitigate, reduce, and eventually eradicate grazing on public lands needs to be prioritized for the benefit of wolf- livestock coexistence and the return of the flourishing west.
Read more about the ecological costs of grazing here.
Wildlife Services: Killing Funded by Your Tax Dollars
Every year the USDA Wildlife Service kills millions of animals, including wolves, coyotes, black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, beavers, birds, and countless other species, including house pets. Wildlife Services 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 primarily serves the interests of the agriculture and livestock industry.
Gray wolf recovery has been slow due to the US federal governments 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. Massive killing increases in Wisconsin, Idaho, and Montana, due to Trump Era Endangered Species delisting and the 2021 introduction of new legislation, threaten to decimate any progress that has been made for wolf recovery thus far.
For a primer about Wildlife Services, read the 2015 HSUS report, “Wildlife Disservice: The USDA Wildlife Services’ Inefficient and Inhumane Wildlife Damage Management Program”
2022 update on Wildlife Services’ activities in 2021: “‘A barbaric federal program’: US killed 1.75m animals last year – or 200 per hour” (The Guardian)
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. Reported incidents of domestic pet and endangered, non-target species being trapped, snared, and/or killed on public lands in states like Idaho and Montana have made trapping and snaring a public safety issue that spans beyond wildlife activism. The variety in trap check time laws from 72 hours to weeks at a time, spotlight the cruel and disturbing nature that is snaring. Trapping and Snaring is not sport, it is inhumane slaughter.
Wildlife advocates should urge their elected leaders to ban leg-hold traps, conibear traps, and neck snares by introducing legislation that would protect not only wildlife, but domestic pets and those that recreate on public lands.
Read more about the problems with trapping here.
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 continually held wildlife derby contests “for population control and management”. The trapping, snaring, hounding, and trophy-hunting of carnivores runs counter to public sentiment and ethics. We will continue to work and support efforts to eradicate these wildlife derbies and sport hunting contests, but there is more work to be done.
Access the HSUS End Wildlife Killing Contests Toolkit.