Topic Area: Endangered Species
Geographic Area: Northern Rocky Mountains
Focal Question: Can economic incentives be altered to reduce opposition to wolf conservation?
(1) Defenders of Wildlife World Wide Web site:
(2) Fischer, Hank, Editorial/Opinion; Page B7 The Arizona Republic
November 25, 1995.
(3) Gerhardt, Gary Wolf Backers To Pay for Calf Rocky Mountain News; February 1, 1995; Ed. F; Page 8A.
(4) Miniclier, Kit Wild Things The Denver Post; January 14, 1996, EMP Page 14.
(5) US Newswire, Missoula, MT, Defenders of Wildlife Will Compensate for First Yellowstone Wolf Kill January 18, 1996.
(6) US Newswire, Washington, Mexican Wolf Draft EIS Released: Defenders Expands the Wolf Compensation Fund to the Southwest June 27, 1995.
Reviewer: Alex E. Roth, Colby College '96
Historically, large predators in the United States were seen as threats to game and livestock, and were trapped, poisoned, and shot. The Federal government launched an aggressive program to eliminate predators early in this century, which targeted even those animals in National Parks. In 1926 Yellowstone's last wolf was killed, and by that time wolves were seriously endangered throughout the Western United States.
Since then, wolves have migrated from Canada into northwestern Montana, in the area of Glacier National Park. Conservationists have been advocating wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone and elsewhere since well before passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. But that law actually required the US Fish and Wildlife Service to create a recovery plan for the Gray Wolf, which was officially listed as endangered in 1973. The ensuing controversies were so acrimonious that years passed before any final decisions were made.
Public opinion in most of the United States seems to be strongly in favor of wolf reintroduction, while many local ranchers have remained vehemently opposed. Ranchers have expressed concern over the possibility of livestock loss on land adjacent to wolf habitat.
It wasn't until November of 1994 that the Interior Department finally approved plans to bring wolves back. The Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation immediately challenged the decision in court. In spite of ongoing anti-wolf efforts, federal workers went ahead with plans to import the wild predators from Canada. In January of 1995, 15 wolves were released in Idaho's Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, and 14 more were moved to temporary holding pens in Yellowstone, where they acclimated to their new surroundings. They were released into the park on March 21.
Defenders of Wildlife, a private non-profit organization, reasoned that it could reduce tensions between stockmen and conservationists by compensating ranchers for losses they suffered as a result of encounters with wolves. In 1987, Defenders raised $100,000 from private donations for this purpose. In the nine years since the fund was created, they have paid nearly $19,000 to 23 ranchers for 40 cattle and 10 sheep. In cases where wolves could not be confirmed as the culprits in the death or disappearance of livestock, owners have been partially compensated by the fund. On several occasions, Defenders has also financed precautionary measures to reduce the likelihood of wolf-cattle interactions. For example, in 1990 they paid for an electric fence which a landowner used to protect his animals from night attacks. And two years later, they bought several tons of hay which a Montana rancher used to keep his animals away from a wolf den.
Encouraged by their success, Defenders created the Wolf Reward Program in 1992. With this new fund, landowners are entitled to $5,000 whenever a pair of wolves successfully breeds on their property. Since the program's inception, two such awards have been made. Defenders has also helped to apprehend wolf poachers by offering $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the illegal hunters.
Through these cash payments, Defenders of Wildlife has shifted the financial burden associated with wildlife conservation. Environmentalists, who benefit from wolves, now also pay for the damages that the animals impose on local residents. As expected, landowners are now more willing to live with predators. This progress has been achieved with a surprisingly small amount of money, especially considering the comparatively large sums spent on wolf research and transportation.
Projects are currently underway to bring more Canadian wolves to Idaho and Wyoming and also to restore the Mexican Wolf to part of its historic range in the Southwest. The Wolf Compensation Fund will be expanded to these southern areas when the Mexican Wolves arrive. The Fund is credited with making these ambitious proposals politically feasible.
However, wolves have always been villains in mythology, and many people have a visceral hostility to predators which is not easily overcome. It would be unrealistic to expect pecuniary incentives to completely alter ingrained cultural values in such a short time. As a result, this highly emotional issue is still controversial and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.