FROM KILLING BABOON FAMILIES TO STAGING PREDATOR-KILLING CONTESTS, HUNTERS STAND ACCUSED OF VIOLATING THE NORTH AMERICAN MODEL OF WILDLIFE CONSERVATION. NOW THEY’RE BEING CALLED OUT BY THEIR OWN
Right now, as you read these words, it is perfectly legal in the state of Wyoming for a person to climb on the back of a snowmobile and chase down wild wolves, pursuing them until they drop from physical exhaustion. And, if that’s not enough, you can then run them over relentlessly with the machine, injuring them until they die.
You don’t need a hunting license, nor even a bullet to kill a wolf. You can do the above with impunity across roughly 85 percent of Wyoming which, as the “Cowboy State” encompasses almost 98,000 square miles, including vast sweeps of public land and excluding only federal wilderness and places where motorized restrictions apply.
You don’t need a reason to justify your actions either. Even if game wardens were to bear witness, it is highly unlikely you would catch any flak—unless your conduct happened to startle a deer, elk, pronghorn or domestic cow or horse, and then you might earn a scolding for harassing wildlife or livestock.
In fact, wolves, which were recently taken off the list of federally-protected species and their management handed over to the state unconditionally in 2017, can be killed by virtually any means, any time of day, any day of the year, without limit in most of Wyoming.
Never in the proud modern history of American wildlife conservation has an iconic animal commanding such mystique as a wolf been the subject of overt government policies encouraging its re-eradication after millions of public dollars were invested in species recovery.
It isn’t even that, as charismatic social animals, wolves in Wyoming are treated as worthless. Their status, by intent, is actually lesser than that because they are relegated pejoratively to “predator” classification—another word for vermin—reserved for feral cats, skunks, and exotic rats.
Lawmakers in Cheyenne, the capital, have long resented wolves being brought back to their state. They regard the native canids as unwanted liabilities imposed upon them, though the presence of wolves in Wyoming’s top two tourist destinations, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, helps generate tens of millions of dollars annually for local economies because they attract legions of avid wolf watchers.
Echoing a mentality that first rose on the 19th-century frontier and still continues, Wyoming’s attitude toward wolves is driven by deep-seated antagonism and defiance. Accused of “devastating” big game herds and wreaking widespread havoc on the livestock industry in spite of scant evidence to support these claims, lobos in the vast majority of Wyoming (except for just 15 percent of the state that includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton) share despised company with another canid unique to North America, the coyote.
Snowmobiles aren’t the only non-firearms tools hunters can employ to destroy these carnivores; lobos, coyotes and their young offspring can be felled with poison, flattened by ATVs, snared, and incinerated live by pouring gas or dynamite into their dens and then lightning a match—acts that most would consider barbaric. If a person doesn’t want to do the killing himself, he can summon gunners employed by a federal agency called Wildlife Services, a division within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to shoot wolves and coyotes from the sky using aircraft.
One former state wildlife professional in Wyoming told Mountain Journal that “what happens with wolves is kind of our dirty little secret—and if the public only knew this is allowed, people would be outraged, deservedly so.”
Today, critics partially blame the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—ironically the very federal steward in charge of nurturing imperiled species toward recovery—for allowing it to happen. Former national director of the Fish and Wildlife Service Dan Ashe told Mountain Journal last summer the agency must abide by states’ rights and the way the Endangered Species Act is currently written, respecting the wishes of whatever states decide to do after an animal is returned to their custody. (The same rationale would apply to the hand over of Greater Yellowstone grizzly bears from federal to state jurisdiction).
In autumn 2018, Chief U.S. District Judge Dana L. Christensen in Missoula, Montana, citing deficiencies in the government’s bear recovery strategy, ordered that grizzlies be returned to federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Still, in light of what’s happening with wolves, there’s little wonder, observers say, why conservationists have dubious trust that state management in Wyoming will work out well for bruins.
The Fish and Wildlife Service initially told Wyoming it would demand that wolves be classified as a game animal across the entire state, thereby ensuring they be managed professionally, like other major species, with hunting quotas and seasons, the same as they are in Montana and Idaho. The Wyoming legislature and governor, however, defied the demand and the Fish and Wildlife Service capitulated.
A former senior official with the Fish and Wildlife Service, who does not want his name used because he is a friend of Ashe, said, “The Service knew Wyoming would allow the same disgraceful things that happen with coyotes to also happen to wolves, which it knew was wrong and inconsistent with the intent of recovering a species, and yet the Service let it happen anyway because of political pressure.”
According to Wyoming statute, wolves in 4/5ths of the state can be killed “with, from, or by use of any aircraft, automotive vehicle, trailer, 35 motor-propelled wheeled vehicle or vehicle designed for travel over snow.” Predators are exceptions to protection under animal cruelty and wildlife harassment codes.
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