Hungry Like the Wolf: Why a Wolf’s Survival Instinct May be at Odds with its Survival in the Current Legal Climate

By David Solimeno

Wolves have often been depicted in a negative light. The Big Bad Wolf terrorized the Three Little Pigs and nearly got away with eating Little Red Riding Hood throughout the cautionary tales we tell our youth. Wolves would have killed Belle had the Beast not intervened in the recently re-imagined Disney classic, Beauty and the Beast. In the real world, the organized extermination of wolves is evidenced as early as the Middle Ages in Britain and Central Europe, due to an early dependence on livestock.[1] This tradition was brought to the North Americas by colonization for the same reason centuries later, whereas the wolves otherwise enjoyed a congenial relationship with the Native Americans who maintained respect for the predator.[2] This near-genocidal approach to protecting livestock decimated wolf populations to the brink of extinction by the 1970’s. Fortunately, Congress took note the wolves’ plight along with other endangered species when it passed the Endangered Species Act, and in 1978 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reclassified both the Grey and Red Wolf populations as endangered.[3]

Today, reintroduction efforts span across the country, which have had documented success in rehabilitating wolf populations.[4] Wolves have fared better in some places than others however, which has created a problem of its own; in 2004, Northern Minnesota’s wolf population had rebounded so successfully that the FWS had already begun discussing delisting the gray wolf there.[5] Indeed, the FWS’s attitude towards the gray wolf populations in the Northern Mid-West has been tumultuous at best. Delisting occurred in Montana in 2009, leading to a state-sponsored hunting season; then the species was returned to the list in 2010. It was delisted in Montana again in 2011 (resulting in another hunting season), as well as in Idaho.[6] In 2012, the FWS tried to delist in Wyoming, but environmental groups filed suit and won in 2014.[7] This past March, however, the Fish and Wildlife Service won on appeal, with the D.C. Circuit stating “That determination, this court acknowledged, is a quintessential judgment call that Congress left to the [Interior Department], and by delegation to the service, which has years of experience in evaluating what is reasonably likely to be implemented and effective.”[8] The main implication here is that upon delisting, the state largely assumes responsibility for managing wolf populations.[9] This can introduce competing interests, such as those of outdoorsman and others that would see wolf populations further diminished.

Most recently, Congress rolled back Obama-era restrictions on hunting wolves and bears in Alaska under authority derived from the Congressional Review Act.[10] The National Rifle Association, commenting when it passed the House, called it a “victory for outdoorsmen in all 50 states.”[11]  The main driving force is a revival of the century-old attitude that wolves must be hunted to protect other animals. In this day and age, however, this theory is contrary to science. Former FWS Director Dan Ashe called the positions taken by such advocates as “wholly at odds with America’s long tradition of ethical, sportsmanlike, fair-chase hunting, in something they call ‘intensive predator management,'” going further to confirm that [the rollback] “is purportedly aimed at increasing populations of caribou and moose but defies modern science of predator-prey relationships.”[12] Furthermore, there has been documented success at preventing wolves from targeting livestock through means not involving killing the creatures.[13] Simply put, this recent push to delist and hunt wolves is a thinly-veiled attempt at reviving the sentiments of old; persecuting a still-struggling species simply for its ecological role as a predator.




[1] Luigi Boitani,  1995. Ecological and cultural diversities in the evolution of wolf-human relationships. Pp. 4 in

L.N. Carbyn, S.H. Fritts, and D.R. Seip, eds. Ecology and conservation of wolves in a changing world.

Canadian Circumpolar Institute,

[2] Id. at 5.

[3] See Reclassification of the Gray Wolf in the United States and Mexico, with Determination of Critical Habitat in Michigan and Minnesota, 43 Fed. Reg. 9607 (March 9, 1978) (codified at 50 C.F.R. pt. 17).

[4] Nicholas J. Podsjadly, Howl of the Wolf or Bark of the Bureaucrat? The Endangered Species Act, The Future of North American Reintroduction Efforts and the Dilemma of Delisting, 9 Drake J. Agric. L. 123, 126 (2004).

[5] Id. at 130.

[6] Mont. proposes to kill 220 wolves in 2011, Land Letter, Environment and Energy Publishing, LLC (Oct. 14, 2010).

[7] Juan Carlos Rodriguez, DC Circ. Upholds FWS Decision To Delist Gray Wolf In Wyo., Law 360 (Mar. 3, 2017).

[8] Defenders of Wildlife et al. v. Ryan Zinke et al., No. 14-5300 (D.C. Cir. 2017).

[9] Ron Moen, Ask NRRI: “What does it mean now that the wolves are ‘delisted’?,” Natural Resources Research Institute, University of Minnesota Duluth, (last modified Mar. 21, 2012).

[10] Colin Dwyer, Congress Rolls Back Obama-Era Rule On Hunting Bears And Wolves In Alaska,

NPR (Mar. 22, 2017).

[11] NRA-Backed Resolution to Stop Obama Attack on State Wildlife Management Passes House, National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action (Feb. 17, 2017).

[12] Dan Ashe, Keep Public Lands Public — And The Wildlife They Protect! Huffington Post (Aug. 3, 2016).

[13] April Reese, Resigned to living with wolves, more ranchers are giving deterrence projects a try Land Letter, Environment and Energy Publishing, LLC (Oct. 14, 2010).

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