Will Gray Wolf Success Story Become a Conservation Tragedy?

Like most good fairytales, the story of the gray wolf is truly captivating. Only this fairytale may turn out to have a tragic ending.

When President Clinton appointed me as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1997, there were about 200 wolves in the Northern Rockies. It was an extraordinary time to be involved in wildlife conservation. An iconic native species that had been carelessly eradicated in the early 1900s was being given a chance to come back. The decision to restore wolves to the West was not without controversy, but most of us at the Fish and Wildlife Service were proud to lead such a historic endeavor. We had the support of our President and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, and poll after poll showed that the vast majority of the American people were excited to see wolves returned to the wild.

When I left my post at the beginning of 2001, the population was approaching 500 wolves, and for the next ten years recovery continued apace. At the end of 2011, there were more than 1,700 wolves in the region, including a handful of breeding pairs in Oregon and Washington and a lone male wolf on a journey through parts of northern California. By almost any measure, the return of gray wolves to the Northern Rockies has been an incredible success... until now.

Over the past year, we've seen an about-face in the treatment and management of wolves in the Northern Rockies. They've gone from being federally protected under the Endangered Species Act to being public enemy number one across much of the region. And it's about to get even worse.

In May 2011, wolves in Idaho and Montana were booted off the endangered species list by Congress -- the first time ever that a species was delisted by lawmakers instead of scientists. Since then, both states have conducted aggressive wolf hunts that have killed more than 500 wolves.

If that wasn't bad enough, both states are ramping up their wolf-killing efforts this coming fall. Idaho has doubled their already excessive bag limit, allowing hunters to kill up to 10 wolves each through a combination of shooting and trapping. Montana has eliminated quotas across most of the state, tripled their bag limit, and will allow widespread trapping.

Both these states claimed they could manage wolves properly if given the chance. Both said they would manage them like other wildlife in the state. But while these states are willing to accommodate thousands of bears and mountain lions, they don't seem willing to share the land with a healthy number of wolves.

And now, in a matter of days, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will announce that it is stripping federal protections for wolves in Wyoming as well. Wyoming's goal is to reduce the population to just 100 wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park, allowing the rest to be killed anytime by almost any means, including shooting them from airplanes, trapping and even gassing pups in their dens. That means nearly half of the current population could be eliminated through a combination of hunting and shoot-on-sight predator control within just a few months of delisting.

No other native species is managed to a biological minimum. Reducing the population to such low levels defeats the purpose of restoring wolves in the first place--allowing them to fulfill their important ecological role in maintaining nature's balance. The goal should be to help the wolf population continue to recover, not put it right back on life support.

Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are seemingly in a race to the bottom after decades spent trying to put wolves back in their rightful place in an ecologically healthy landscape. Across the region, we're seeing wolves being persecuted once again as unwanted vermin rather than being treated as other valuable wildlife. This harmful attitude is what led to the eradication of wolves nearly a century ago and it is still a persistent threat to wolves today.

Sadly, unless the delisting decision is halted and the states involved begin to treat wolves as they do other wildlife within their borders, the hopeful tale of wolf recovery will have a tragic final chapter. This is the Obama administration's last chance to write a better ending for what has otherwise been a remarkable national conservation success story.