By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
Gray wolves used to thrive in most states in the U.S. and across Europe. Because of trophy hunting and habitat loss, wolves were extirpated from most states in the U.S. until the 1970s, when gray wolves were listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act, giving them federal protections against being hunted.
Gray wolves are still absent from about 70% of currently suitable habitat in the lower 48 states — and yet legislators and wildlife agencies have systematically continued to roll back wolf protections at an alarming rate. When sound science, ethics and public values all show that wolves need protection, it’s astounding that measures to kill more wolves in the U.S. are being put in place.
Today, on Endangered Species Day, we shine a light on the dangers wolves face in the U.S., while highlighting encouraging progress and what we are doing across the Humane Society family of organizations to fight for these iconic animals.
How the U.S. started failing its wolves
Since 2003, the U.S. government — often pandering to special interests — has repeatedly tried to remove comprehensive gray wolf protections, based on select sets of data that showed limited wolf recovery in just a few areas. In 2011, wolf protections were recklessly rolled back in Idaho and Montana, as well as parts of Oregon, Washington and Utah through an act of Congress that removed federal wolf protections in these states and opened public hunting seasons. In 2017, Wyoming joined this slew of states failing their wolves. When wolves in the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin lost their Endangered Species Act protections in 2011, nearly 1,500 were killed by trophy hunters and trappers before our successful litigation, later upheld in a court of appeals, restored them.
Then, last November, in a devastating blow, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted gray wolves across the lower 48 states, a decision that went into effect in January 2021 and left wolf protection and management squarely in the hands of states. Unfortunately, wolves have been in the crosshairs for decades under both Democratic and Republican administrations, prompting additional attacks from federal legislators as well. The federal government also proposed to strip wolves of endangered species protections in 2013, but the Humane Society of the United States and its partners sued to reinstate the protections. The subsequent decision to overturn wolf protections in 2020 has had ripple effects in the states, resulting in egregious treatment of this imperiled animal.
Anti-wolf efforts are backed by a small but vocal and influential group of people who push out fear and misinformation about wolves, including the longstanding, but completely false, belief that killing wolves will reduce conflicts with livestock, often allowed to graze on public land.
Not only are wolf-livestock conflicts extremely rare, but the science has demonstrated that randomly killing wolves won’t prevent such conflicts — in fact, it can have the opposite effect. Wolves raise their families in a cohesive family social structure; killing them can create social chaos that may lead to more conflicts. Scientific studies, as well as evidence from ranchers and farmers who successfully coexist with wolves and other wildlife, demonstrate that non-lethal deterrents — such as fencing, livestock guardian dogs and having a human presence — are all much more effective at preventing conflicts between livestock and wolves.
Earlier this month, Idaho Governor Brad Little signed into law an act that aims to cut the state’s wolf population by up to 90% by allowing trophy hunters and trappers to kill wolves using just about every cruel method imaginable — from shooting mothers and pups in their dens to poisoning them to running them down with snowmobiles.
In Montana, Governor Greg Gianforte recently signed a raft of bills into law allowing trophy hunters and trappers to kill an unlimited number of wolves, to use bait and strangling neck snares, to kill wolves at night and to expand the wolf trapping season. One of the new laws even brings back what is essentially a wolf bounty system, which incentivizes hunters to kill wolves by paying them.
In Wisconsin, a rushed and violent wolf hunt in February resulted in the slaughter of more than 200 wolves in less than 60 hours. Most of the wolves killed were chased down and cornered by packs of radio-collared hounds, and others were killed in strangling cable neck snares and steel-jawed leghold traps. The hunt took place during the wolves’ breeding season, so it is likely that at least some of the wolves killed were pregnant. Wisconsin is already gearing up for another hunt this November. Despite massive public opposition, the hunt was expedited through the court system at the urging of a Kansas-based trophy hunting and trapping organization.
And in Michigan — where the state’s voters have already rejected two wolf hunt laws by a wide margin — the state senate passed a resolution urging a wolf hunting and trapping season later this year. Although fewer than 7% of Michiganders hold a hunting license, the consolidation of powerful trophy hunting and trapping interests in state wildlife agencies disproportionately influence lawmakers.
Hope for wolf conservation in Europe
Poland has one of the biggest gray wolf populations in the European Union, with an estimated 2,000 wolves or more. A couple of decades ago, Polish wolves were nearing extinction. The introduction of strict protection of the species in 1998 restored the population. Under this law, it is forbidden to kill and capture wolves, as well as destroy or disturb their dens.
Despite the regulations in place, wolf poaching is still prevalent in Poland, and there is rising pressure to reinstitute wolf hunting, like in the U.S. Poachers are rarely identified and brought to court, mostly due to the lack of appropriate law enforcement.
Even though it is extremely rare for wolves to attack humans, wolves are demonized through local media, fueling irrational fear and hatred. Humane Society International in Poland is working closely with partner organizations to raise awareness about wolves, ways of peacefully coexisting with them and their crucial ecological role in Polish forests. Hopefully, this awareness campaign can serve as a model for other countries, including the U.S.
What you can do
We will continue to fight for wolves on all fronts. Humane Society International will continue to work throughout Europe to protect wolves from hunting, raise awareness and promote human-wolf coexistence. In Poland, we anticipate conducting surveys aimed at accessing local views and beliefs on wolves and producing videos with NGOs on wolves and their ecological importance.
In the U.S., at the state level, we are pushing back against laws and policies that will lead to more wolf killing. At the federal level, we are currently in court to overturn the most recent illegal delisting, as well as continuing to urge the Biden Administration to follow the science and reinstate federal protections for wolves.
You can help wolves by spreading the word that wolves are not enemies, but valuable members of ecosystems. You can also add your name to a pledge to end trophy hunting here in the U.S.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.