Gray Wolves on the Rebound (But There's Bad News, Too)

First the good news: the gray wolf has done incredibly well since 66 of the endangered animals were transplanted into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. With plenty of room to grow, populations shot up 20-30% every year. Now, just 12 years later, an estimated 1,545 wolves roam the wilds of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Like I said, that's the good news.

But that boom comes with a price. And with that price could come the slaughter of more than two-thirds of those new wolves.

You see, wolves are hunters, and they now live right alongside commercial cattle ranches. Which means that from time to time, they prey on livestock and domesticated animals. And when wolves prey on livestock, they sign their own death warrants. As the AP reports:

In recent years, as the wolf population re-established itself, the number of cattle, sheep and other domestic animals killed by wolves has soared from 123 in 2000 to 330 this year through early October. The number of wolves killed in response — by ranchers and federal wildlife agents acting on their behalf — increased sevenfold in the same period, from 20 to 146.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now considering delisting the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List. Under their plan, hunters and trappers would be allowed to kill more than 1,000 wolves. As long as 450 remained alive, hunting would continue. Protective status would only return if populations dropped below 300.

Which leads to a question: why go to the effort to restore this species if you're just going to start slaughtering it?

There's also a question about the economics of conservation: The U.S. has spend $24 million so far to restore the gray wolf to the wild. Cattle aren't worth remotely near that -- averaging less than $1,000 a head. Even if all of the wolves' prey were cattle (which they're not), the cost to farmers would be less than $300,000 a year. So why just not pay ranchers a small fee for every killed steer, instead of putting to waste 12 years' worth of time, effort and money?

Of course, something like that would require logic, a trait that seems to have died out a long time ago.

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That's a good point, John. And it's not just all the money we've spent conserving the grey wolf in the Northern Rockies--they've also brought substantial economic benefits with them as well. According to one study (, tourists who travel to Yellowstone National Park to see wolves add about $35 million dollars a year to the economies of the communites surrounding the Park.

And according to another study released this week: "National wildlife refuges more than make up for their cost to taxpayers by returning about $4 in economic activity for every $1 the government spends, according to a federal study released Tuesday."

Go figure, nature = money!

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