Eight years after a wolf walked out of a pen and howled in Yellowstone National Park, it is clear the predators are here to stay.
The restoration of wolves to Idaho and Yellowstone in 1995 has been wildly successful, even though many Westerners remain bitter about an intrusive federal government. Now, a decision announced earlier this month by the Bush administration may prevent the return of wolves to wild places in the East.
This isn't playing fair, and Westerners should oppose it.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced March 18 that gray wolves would be "downlisted" under the Endangered Species Act from endangered to threatened. This means federal biologists no longer believe wolves are on the brink of extinction in the United States, and the new listing allows more flexibility in killing "problem" wolves. In Idaho and Wyoming, officials already have that flexibility because the wolves were reintroduced as experimental populations with special rules.
What this decision really means is that Easterners are off the hook. The Bush plan would combine in one group healthy populations that have returned naturally to Midwestern states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, with nonexistent populations in the East. This means the chance wolves will be reintroduced to Maine and New York is practically nil.
Wolves will still be considered endangered in the Southwest. But in places like Nevada, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Montana and California, wolves will have less federal protection. This may please many Westerners. It will certainly make it easier for ranchers and others who have to deal with the wolf's taste for cattle and house pets.
Why should Westerners care about wolves in the Adirondacks, the Maine woods or the Catskills? Because wolves occupy only about 2 percent of their historic range, and in the wild and heavily forested places of the East there is ample habitat and food to maintain healthy populations. Easterners should also have to face the same debates and tradeoffs as Westerners. Once upstate New Yorkers decide it's necessary to kill off a wolf pack to accommodate suburban homeowners and their dogs, they may begin to understand the challenges we've been facing out here.
For the record, I'm thrilled that wolves are back in the West. I have had the opportunity to hear a pack howl in Yellowstone, and I've watched them run through the hills of the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. These experiences have enriched my life and enhanced my trips into the backcountry.
But I recognize that many of my friends disagree. Some would even wipe wolves out again if given the chance, though this will never happen: The Endangered Species Act removes that option even after the states take control.
Meanwhile, Westerners for the most part are making room for wolves, albeit at different levels of cooperation, and this adaptation could also happen in the East, though wolves will have a harder time refilling the smaller pockets of habitat. Yet the East desperately needs more predators, since Whitetail deer numbers are exploding at the same time that hunting wanes. Wolves can be the answer to a growing overpopulation problem that otherwise will be solved with disease.
I believe, as many Western conservative members of Congress say they believe, that the federal government should put as much time and effort into restoring wolves to New York as it has to bringing them home to Idaho. Only when wolves howl again in the Adirondacks will this nation prove its commitment to protecting its natural legacy.
Editor's note: Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a visiting fellow at the Andrus Center for Public Policy in Boise,Idaho.