How the Fight for the Gray Wolf Was Won & Lost

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By the 1930s, the U.S. federal government had killed Yellowstone's gray wolves. About 60 years later, it tried to reverse that.
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In the 1990s, the federal government placed the gray wolf on the endangered species list and reintroduced it to the American West. The wolf population was nearly non-existent after years of systematic eradication by ranchers.

From a wildlife perspective, the initiative was a huge success—the gray wolf population has bounced back across the northern Rocky Mountains. But many view the legacy of the program as a political disaster that created a widening divide between environmentalists, ranchers, and elected officials.

Our friends at the documentary team Retro Report have looked back at the lessons learned from this historic and controversial program. Erik German, a producer with Retro Report, weighs in.

“The wolves were reintroduced in 1996, and by 2002, the population had bounced back to somewhere around twice the initial target numbers,” says German. “And the push back began then.”

When gray wolves were initially reintroduced, ranchers in the Yellowstone area opposed the initiative after the wolves began preying on livestock. While German says that losses weren’t widespread, some ranchers did feel very serious impacts.

“[It cost] $60,000 the first couple of years between the sheep we lost and the calves we lost,” rancher Jim Melin told Retro Report. “Every time that those wolves come in here and take a part of my living away, that means I have to make it up somewhere's else.”

Once the population began to bounce back, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believed it met its goal and proceeded to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list. German says that the decision triggered a flurry of lawsuits from environmentalists.

“They sued because they said the wolves weren’t breeding across geographical lines in the way that was specified in the plan,” he says. “They were concerned that if you turned the control back over to the states that the states would push for numbers right near the red line and there wouldn’t be a healthy population.”

The legal actions taken by environmental groups kept the wolves on the endangered species list until 2011. Today, there are more than 1,600 gray wolves living in the northern Rocky Mountains.

“The issue of wolves became politically poisonous,” says German. “It became so political that Congress stepped in and did this unprecedented thing—they pulled wolves off of the endangered species list with a budget amendment in 2011.”

Normally, animals are only taken off the endangered species list when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finds that the population has recovered. And now some activists are afraid they might have pushed too hard.

“I think we are all so busy stridently supporting our campaign that we didn't look at the bigger picture,” activist Lisa Upson told Retro Report. “And so all of a sudden it was like, ‘Wow, this could go very badly. And it did."

The decision to push the government on the issue of gray wolves may have ultimately set a very bad precedent.

“[Environmentalists] are concerned that this has opened a door to a future where Congress could step in and start taking any politically inconvenient animal off of the endangered species list,” says German.

Check out a video of Retro Report's findings below.