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The grey wolf was once nearly hunted to extinction in the U.S. until the federal government put it on the endangered species list in 1974. 20 years later, it was successfully reintroduced to Idaho and Yellowstone. As pack numbers grew, the gray wolf was taken off the list. But more than 50 wildlife groups are worried it may face endangerment again from expanded hunting. William Brangham reports.
The reintroduction of the gray wolf in America is considered one of the great conservation victories of recent decades.
But now more than 50 wildlife groups are asking the federal government to put the wolves back on the endangered species list.
As William Brangham reports, it's an effort to push back against states that are now expanding wolf hunting.
Clayton Mecham, Cattle Rancher:
Most of them are Angus cows.
Clayton Mecham and his family have been cattle ranching in South Central Idaho for four generations. It's a tough business.
Your profitability is so low, any little hiccup in it is a big blow to the bottom line.
His cattle graze across more than 70,000 acres each summer, and on top of drought, disease, and rising feed prices, there's another threat, gray wolves.
We have, I think, six or eight that we know of, that were confirmed kills from wolves. But, I mean, that number could be in the teens even, because, up in these mountains, when you lose something, we typically get up and check them once a week, make sure everything's OK, make sure they're where they're supposed to be.
And you will come up on one that's half-eaten already.
Ranchers, not only are wolves killing their livestock, but they also say wolves just prowling around can stress livestock, which can affect their reproduction and their weight.
When you sell them, you get paid on the pound. So, for every pound you have lost that summer, that's another hit to your pocketbook.
State Sen. Van Burtenshaw, R-ID:
This is the band of sheep piled up.
So this isn't wolves actually biting and killing each one of these? They're just driving them off a cliff, basically?
State Sen. Van Burtenshaw:
Complaints from ranchers prompted state Senator Van Burtenshaw — he's a rancher himself — to sponsor a law that significantly expands wolf hunting in Idaho.
There's a wave of wolves coming in, and we just want to slow that wave down, minimize our costs and bring back the ranching family.
I was looking at some of the data on the state government Web site about confirmed wolf kills of livestock, and it was like well under 1 percent of the total livestock that were confirmed to be killed by wolves.
Like, that data seems indicate it isn't such a problem.
So, what's 1 percent of a million head of cattle? If you can afford it, you can afford it. If you can't, we're chewing in on their bottom line.
Idaho's new law allows individual hunters to kill an unlimited number of gray wolves, up from 15 per person last year. It allocates money to pay federal wildlife officials and private contractors to kill wolves that prey on livestock, and it allows people to pay $1,000 bounties to hunters for each wolf they kill.
Other states are following suit. Montana passed a similar set of laws this year, and expanded hunting in Wisconsin this year already reduced that state's wolf population by 30 percent.
These measures are being condemned by conservationists, people like James Holt. He's a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, whose reservation is in Northwest Idaho.
James Holt, Wildlife Advocate, Nez Perce Tribe:
To eradicate wolves, when we have seen them going to the appropriate locations throughout the land, I think is — it's foolhardy. It has to be reconsidered.
The legislators behind this law say they don't want to eradicate the wolves, and that, if the wolf population starts to dip too low, they will stop and reconsider at that point.
Does that reassure you at all?
No, it doesn't.
Gray wolves in the U.S. were essentially eradicated once before. By the 1930s, they'd been trapped, shot and poisoned to near extinction in the lower 48 states.
In 1974, the federal government put them on the endangered species list, and 20 years later, the gray wolf was reintroduced to Idaho and Yellowstone, with crucial help from the Nez Perce, and particularly Holt's uncle Levi. That's him second on the left.
In many ways, the story of the wolf is our story, and our right and freedom to be on the land is just as important as that of the wolf. So, we have always taken that relationship seriously.
Gray wolves have since rebounded, from virtually none to more than 7,000 today, mostly in the West, Northwest and Great Lakes regions. Holt says the return of this apex predator has brought huge benefits to local ecosystems.
They had done a wonderful thing by allowing wolves back onto the landscape. It really started to right many areas in our homelands that were sick and ailing. It brought some species back, the scavenger species that relied on kills by wolves.
As the wolf population rebounded, the federal government removed it from the endangered species list, first in Idaho and Montana in 2011, then across the entire lower 48 states earlier this year.
Carter Niemeyer, Wildlife Biologist:
A 100-pound wolf, 10 pounds of resistance®MD-UL¯.
Retired wildlife biologist Carter Niemeyer says widespread hunting and trapping aimed at wolves could inadvertently snare other species.
Elk, calves, domestic sheep, the guard dogs, all of them will trigger this.
And so it just steps on it.
But he also says hunting wolves just doesn't work. And he should know. In the 1990s, he killed, trapped and relocated wolves as part of government efforts to reduce conflicts between wolves and ranchers. And he was on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife team that traveled up to Canada and captured live wolves there for reintroduction into Idaho.
To open up wolf killing now on a year-round basis, and let everyone jump into the game, I don't see it translating into more saved or protected livestock.
We have been killing wolves now since the mid-1980s, starting in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and we still have wolves in all of the same places. You take out a pack, another pack moves in.
And you don't think, in the end, it will be successful? You think the wolves will survive?
I do. It's a slippery slope.
It's — when you find out it's not working, that is not making a lot more difference, other than putting some money in some people's pocket, what are you going to do next? Are we going to get toxicants back? Are we going to encourage poison? Are we going to hand out aerial hunting permits to everybody who flies an airplane or helicopter?
And that's what bothers me, is that we are just going down a road that we shouldn't even be approaching.
Some ranchers are trying alternative solutions.
Sheep rancher Brian Bean works with Kurt Holtzen of the nonprofit Wood River Wolf Project to use nonlethal ways of keeping the wolves at bay.
Kurt Holtzen, Wood River Wolf Project:
It's a protective collar, because it's two layers of leather and some Kevlar.
So, this is for the guard dogs to wear?
Yes, it's for the big white American dogs.
In addition to guard dogs, herders stay with the flock at nearly all times. Wolves tend to stay away when humans are around. And they use lights and loud noises as further deterrents.
Bean says, if they can steer wolves away from livestock, they will be more likely to stick to their natural prey, which is mostly elk, and then ranchers and wolves can both share these lands.
Brian Bean, Owner, Lava Lake Lamb:
We know that nonlethal works. At least, it works for us in our country. And, oh, by the way, if it can work here, it's going to be able to work most places.
If your system works, by and large, why has it not been adopted more widely?
I think that there are folks out there that tried it for half-a-season or a season, and they found it to be less effective than they would have hoped.
I got to tell you, it took us two to three years to get good at it.
Just to work out the techniques, the placement?
To know what the hell you're doing, because it's complicated.
But state Senator Burtenshaw doesn't think nonlethal methods are viable for most ranchers.
If they had to hire more and more men or women or whatever to run around the ranges to try to scare wolves off, it would be a phenomenal cost to the rancher.
One thing is clear. For now, these wolves aren't going away, and they're likely to expand their range.
So, ranchers will have to figure out how to live with these wolves for years to come.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Central Idaho.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Gretchen Frazee is a Senior Coordinating Broadcast Producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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