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Yellowstone and the Gray Wolf

July 09, 1989

Rep. Wayne Owens (D-Utah) has joined with the conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife in sponsoring legislation that would implement the deadlocked federal plan to reintroduce the gray wolf to Yellowstone National Park. The proposal deserves speedy congressional approval and should eliminate any further hesitation by the Department of the Interior in carrying out the wolf recovery plan in Yellowstone--as it actually is required to do now under the Endangered Species Act.

The Interior Department has balked because of the opposition of a handful of senators and House members from Rocky Mountain states who are representing the interests of alarmed stockmen in areas of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana that border Yellowstone. But the wolf restoration program has picked up some powerful supporters in the last year or so, including Idaho Sen. James A. McClure, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a longtime opponent of most progressive conservation and wilderness legislation.

Defenders of Wildlife and Owens may not have a deal the ranchers will find irresistible, but the stockmen should find it difficult to be so stubbornly opposed to the wolf program now. Defenders of Wildlife has established a private foundation to compensate ranchers for any sheep or cattle lost because of the wolf recovery program. The fund would be publicly administered, somewhat like the one that has been in operation for some time in northern Minnesota, which has the largest wolf population in the lower 48. The Owens bill woulddirect the secretary of the interior to complete an environmental impact statement on the wolf recovery program by the end of 1991, to make a decision on the recovery program within 60 days after that and then implement the decision within six months. The bill authorizes the secretary to give financial assistance to the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to help administer state wolf conservation and management plans.

More than 100 wolves lived in the 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone in the early 1900s before the government started a systematic plan of killing them by shooting, trapping and poisoning. The wolf was wiped out by the 1920s. Idaho's McClure is correct in saying, in an interview in the Defenders of Wildlife magazine, that the eradication of the wolf has upset the natural balance in Yellowstone and, among other things, led to the overpopulation of elk in the park. One result was the very high death rate of elks in Yellowstone this past winter.

McClure said that wolves were eliminated by man unnaturally. "If we can reintroduce them in a way that minimizes conflict with man and man's raising of livestock, then I think we have accomplished something," McClure said. The plan proposed by Owens and Defenders of Wildlife would do just that. But the Department of the Interior does not have to wait for Congress to act. With the conservationists pledging to pay for any steer or lamb killed by a wolf, and with people like McClure in agreement, the department should feel confident enough to move ahead with the recovery program immediately.

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