Wolf Relocation Controversy
The three wolves were laid out on blankets - a young 105-lb. animal with a sleek black coat, and a pair of slightly smaller, grey-flecked ones, still unconscious after being tranquillized earlier in the day. An assortment of Canadian veterinarians, American government biologists and volunteers hovered over the wolves, taking blood and hair samples, administering vaccines, attaching ear tags and implanting microchips to help keep track of the animals. The wolves being examined in the small northern B.C. city of Fort St. John were among the last of 38 animals captured in the area last month and taken in two shipments, on Jan. 22 and Jan. 26, to the United States. There, they were destined for central Idaho and Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park as part of a U.S. government effort to re-establish wolves in America's northern Rocky Mountains. The program has its staunch supporters - as well as its adamant opponents. And when the two sides talk about the relocation program, says Steven Fritts, the Fish and Wildlife Service's chief scientist for grey wolf recovery in the western United States, "many are not really talking about just the animal, because the wolf is such a powerful symbol."
To some supporters of the relocation effort, the wolf represents wilderness and nature the way it is meant to be; to ranchers worried about their livestock, it is simply the predator. The former see the program as a righting of past wrongs. For years, some states offered bounties for dead wolves and federal officials joined in the eradication effort; by the 1930s, wolves had virtually disappeared in all but one (Minnesota) of the lower 48 U.S. states. Now, the process has been reversed. Wolves were included in federal endangered species legislation in 1973. And for the past decade, they have been drifting down from southern Alberta into northern Montana, establishing seven packs there on their own. Then last year, the U.S. government began helping Mother Nature along, transplanting 29 wolves from Alberta to Yellowstone and to central Idaho in the first stage of a scheduled three-to-five-year program. The goal is to establish self-sustaining populations, with about 10 packs - or roughly 100 animals - in each area. "We're trying to get wolf numbers to the point where they're off the Endangered Species Act," says Fritts. "At that point, we cross the finish line."
The program has drawn some fire in Canada, where wildlife groups protest that not enough is being done to protect Canadian wolves. And one Vancouver-based group calling itself Friends of the Wolf offered $5,000 to anyone who frees the wolves captured in Fort St. John. (No one seems to have tried.) But the program's fiercest critics are in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, north of Yellowstone Park, where some of last year's 29 transplants have wandered.
Ranchers worry that wolves will harass their livestock - they point to one case of a wolf pack from the transplanted group killing a hunting dog, and another where a single wolf probably killed at least two sheep. Hunters complain that wolves will deplete big game. Some critics charge that small children and domestic pets might even be in danger. Jason Campbell, natural resource co-ordinator for the Montana Stockgrowers Association in Helena, says ranchers in northern parts of the state are more tolerant of wolves moving in on their own. "But when a federal agency is bringing them in and basically sticking them in your backyard," Campbell says, "that gets a little bit tough for our people to understand. Private property rights are a huge issue here."
Farm and ranch groups have sought - so far unsuccessfully - to have the courts halt the reintroduction effort. And this year, Congress cut $275,000 out of the wolf program's $825,000 budget. But American wildlife groups chipped in with some funds, including more than $40,000 raised by the Idaho-based Wolf Education and Research Center. And about 10 volunteers came to Fort St. John to assist in the capture operation. Meanwhile, Fritts says he is unaware of any documented case of a healthy wolf killing a human being in North America. "If wolves were inclined to bother people," he says, "we would know about it. There's just too much evidence that they don't." And although wolves do kill some livestock, he maintains, they kill fewer than disease or other predators like coyotes, bears and mountain lions. Regionwide, he insists, the wolves "will not add to the mortality of livestock to any significant degree." Still, Fritts concedes that the program has drawn considerable criticism and that "there's a big question about whether politically we would be able to do it again." In the end, that may not matter. "I think we're ahead of schedule," Fritts says. "It's not clear to us right now whether a third year is even necessary."
There was a time when relocation efforts worked the other way across the Canada-U.S. border. In 1917, after overhunting, bad weather and large forest fires had severely depopulated elk from the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, elk were shipped from Yellowstone Park to Banff and Waterton Lakes National parks and later to Jasper National Park, as well. Meanwhile, bighorn sheep have on several occasions been transplanted from Alberta and British Columbia to Washington, Oregon and other states. And in a program independent of the wolf recovery effort, 30 elk are being transferred from Alberta's Elk Island National Park to Kentucky this month.
Efforts to relocate predators like wolves, though, have been much more divisive. One man has already been convicted of shooting one of last year's transplants in Montana. The relocated wolves are under a special, experimental category in endangered species legislation that allows landowners to kill wolves - but only if they catch the predators in the act of attacking their livestock. Another wolf was shot in Idaho while eating a calf, though officials say that the calf was dead before the wolf found it. And a third wolf - an offspring of one of the transplants - was run over by a truck. But the remaining animals - and eight of their pups - seem to have survived their first year in good health.
The second round of wolves were taken from wilderness areas some 160 km north and west of Fort St. John. Biologists with B.C. Environment radio-collared some of the wolves in November and December, in part to ease the task of locating them. And beginning on Jan. 16, two airplane pilots from Fairbanks, Alaska, began tracking wolf packs. The animals travel in family units - a breeding pair and several years' worth of offspring. When the pilots spotted a pack, they called in two helicopters, each with an Alaska Fish and Game biologist armed with tranquillizer darts on board. On the coldest day, the mercury dropped to -43° C at ground level - a balmy 30° C at higher altitudes, but still enough to freeze the tranquillizer in the darts. So the darters had to store them in boxes packed with disposable hand warmers until the last possible moment before loading and firing.
It took about three to eight minutes for the wolves to fall after they had been darted, says Ken Taylor, one of the darters and the deputy director of Alaska Fish and Game's wildlife conservation division. The airplane pilots kept track of those wolves while the helicopters pursued more. Then the choppers landed and the darters waded through snow, in some cases armpit deep, to recover the animals. "The first days were difficult because it was so cold," says Taylor. "And it's always windy with the door removed."
The planes and helicopters spent seven days in the sky, airlifting wolves each evening back to Fort St. John. There, they were tagged and tested and, laboratory blood results showed, found to be free of major diseases like rabies and brucellosis. Then the wolves were placed in 12-foot-by-six-foot chain-link kennels draped with old bedspreads - donated by a local motel - to minimize distractions while they awaited transport.
Of the 38 wolves flown to the United States, one was destroyed upon its arrival after it bit a biologist - program protocol called for the most definitive rabies test, which requires testing the brain of the animal, in the event that a human is bitten. Of the remaining 37 wolves, 20 were sent to Idaho where they were released directly into the wild in the hopes that they will find mates and form their own packs. The other 17 - mostly members of five existing family packs - are being held in pens in Yellowstone for up to 10 weeks to become acclimated to their new environment. Then they, too, will be released into a wilderness where wolves were once plentiful - there to remain the objects of both admiration and animosity.
Maclean's February 12, 1996