With wolves coming off the endangered species list for the first time in nearly 40 years, the animals will soon become prey again —but officials, hunters, and wildlife activists are sniping at each other before the hunt can even begin. "It’s hard to fathom that you can be deserving of federal protection under the Endangered Species Act on September 30 and on October 1 be open fire," one activist tells The Washington Post. But officials say wolf-hunting is necessary now that America's wolf population has bounced back. Should wolves be fair game, or do hunters run the risk of undoing all the gains made over the past decades? Here, a guide to the biggest issue of hunting season:
How did American wolves become endangered in the first place?
More than 300 years of methodical extermination by trappers and settlers, who wanted to protect livestock and sell wolf pelts. When wolves were added to the endangered species list in 1973, there were only a few hundred left in the lower 48 states. Since then, the wolf population has bounced back, with "roughly 6,000 in the United States and 7,700 to 11,200 in Alaska."
What do authorities say?
The fact that wolves can be hunted again is proof of a "great comeback," Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe tells The Washington Post. Some people "don't like the idea of animals being shot," but as long as the overall population is secure, there's no reason for wolves to be protected. Ken McDonald, the chief of wildlife at the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department, adds that the ultimate goal is "a balance" in which wolves can exist without threatening cattle and other key populations.
Will hunting put wolves back on the endangered species list?
Not according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which approved plans in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming that will require each state to maintain a minimum of 450 adult wolves, with at least 45 breeding pairs. The impact will likely be substantial — of the 1,774 adult wolves in the three states, the agency predicts that roughly 1,000 will survive hunting season — but the wolf population is in no danger of going extinct.
So what's the problem?
It's not just about keeping a minimum quota of wolves alive; it's about the "key role" that wolves play in the ecosystem. The Aspen trees in Yellowstone Park suffered substantial damage alongside the decline in the wolf population, as elk ate leaves without any natural predators to keep their browsing in check. The resurgence of the wolf population has allowed the trees to thrive again, which has had a positive ripple effect on everything from streams to beaver and bison populations.
Is there a compromise to be had?
The real problem here is the limits of the Endangered Species Act, says Derek Mead at Vice, which focuses on "having just enough individuals to sustain a species." That's a short-sighted approach for something with such far-reaching implications for an entire ecosystem's health and diversity. No matter what number the Fish and Wildlife Service decides is its minimum number, there will be "environmental costs" that come from the wolf hunts. A real, sustainable solution will require more than a simple endangered/non-endangered quota.