Debates Around Controversy


Grey Wolf

  In the late 1800s and early 1900s wolves were considered a highly unwanted predator. Their populations in the states had such detrimental effects that it was deemed necessary for them to be extirpated all together. Wolves were subject to widespread trapping, hunting, and even poisoning. Congress had sanctioned these efforts, granting the Bureau of Biological Survey the official authority to eliminate them. These enormous efforts proved to be effective by the 1930s, when the wolf population was believed to be functionally eradicated. However, research has shown that without the wolf species, populations of ungulate species (deer in particular) irrupted—thus leading to the overgrazing of woody species, and substantial ecosystem damage. 

In recent decades, there have been numerous efforts to reintroduce wolves into portions of the western US, such as Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Their range has since expanded into the upper Great Lake states (Minnesota, Wisconsin), and their numbers have recovered to the point that they have been considered ready to be taken off the Endangered Species List. This has lead to a massive uproar from environmentalists, hunters, farmers, local residents, and state officials. There is a controversy regarding whether the wolf population is stable enough to be taken off—and it still rages on today.

While the original controversy regarding wolf reintroduction has long passed, the recent decision to remove them from the endangered species list and declare them as being “recovered” is hotly debated.  This delisting of the species has opened them up to regulated hunting, in both Idaho and Montana (Wyoming’s bid was rejected), with the first season having recently commenced September 2009.  Conservation groups have been outspoken about the delisting.  Such groups, lead primarily by Defenders of Wildlife, have sought injunctions (filed September 08, 2009) to reinstate the Endangered Species Act and halt the planned hunt.  Rulings on such lawsuits have opened up further controversy on the process of delisting species from only selected areas (wolves are still on the endangered list in WY).  Most recently, hunting advocates have gained sponsorship from big name companies (such as Nikon and Cabela’s) to help fund their 5th annual “Predator Derby” (Jan. 2010); a hunting competition aimed at harvesting predacious animals. The 5th annual “Predator Derby” will be the first ever to include wolves.  Popular news organizations, such as the New York Times and National Public Radio, have recently reported on this topic and it is even the cover story of the March 2010 edition of National Geographic. This will be a feature program this week (February 26, 2010) on PBS, informing the nation of this ongoing battle.  The issue of whether or not wolves are ready to be a) taken off the endangered list and b) subjected to the pressures of hunting is still debated with courtroom battles and national debates ongoing.  

The main scientific dispute in the controversy is the point at which “science” says that the wolf population is viable and stable, and that human protection is no longer necessary. The science is uncertain of the issue and is represented by different parties in different ways; those against protection of the wolves cite historic population numbers as evidence of its stability, while environmentalists and wolf-advocates assert that taking away the wolves’ protection will negate the progress that has been made. In addition to the scientific uncertainty about when a population is no longer “endangered” or “threatened,” there are political and social controversies involving gray wolves. To many, the wolf is viewed as a majestic and wild creature symbolic of America’s wilderness. To others, particularly hunters and farmers, the wolf is a nuisance that damages their livestock and takes away their big game. The issue of private property also comes into play, as some feel that they should be able to shoot a wolf that comes onto their property, although it is forbidden by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Even broader in scope is the matter of the ESA itself, which is so pervasive that it can affect every aspect of life.  The debate over the extent to which the ESA should or should not be able to limit human actions has been raging since it became a law in 1973.