Of Wolves and Wilderness

The following guest column was written by George Nickas, executive director of Missoula-based Wilderness Watch, and one of the nation’s leading experts on  Wilderness Act policy and management.  Please consider this opinion piece a follow-up to this January 8 post. – mk

Of Wolves and Wilderness
By George Nickas

“One of the most insidious invasions of wilderness is via predator control.” – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Right before the holidays last December, an anonymous caller alerted Wilderness Watch that the Forest Service (FS) had approved the use of one of its cabins deep in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (FC-RONRW) as a base camp for an Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) hunter-trapper. The cabin would support the hired trapper’s effort to exterminate two entire wolf packs in the Wilderness. The wolves, known as the Golden Creek and Monumental Creek packs, were targeted at the behest of commercial outfitters and recreational hunters who think the wolves are eating too many of “their” elk.

Idaho’s antipathy toward wolves and Wilderness comes as no surprise to anyone who has worked to protect either in Idaho. But the Forest Service’s support and encouragement for the State’s deplorable actions were particularly disappointing. Mind you, these are the same Forest Service Region 4 officials who, only a year or two ago, 
approved IDFG’s request to land helicopters in this same Wilderness to capture and collar every wolf pack, using the justification that understanding the natural behavior of the wolf population was essential to protecting them and preserving the area’s 
wilderness character. Now, somehow, exterminating those same wolves is apparently also critical to preserving the area’s wilderness character. The only consistency here is the FS and IDFG have teamed up to do everything possible to destroy the Wilderness and wildlife they are required to protect.

Wilderness Watch, along with Defenders of Wildlife, Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, and Idaho wildlife advocate Ralph Maughan, filed suit in federal court against the Forest Service and IDFG to stop the wolf slaughter. Our suit alleges the FS failed to follow its own required procedures before authorizing IDFG’s hunter-trapper to use a FS cabin as a base for his wolf extermination efforts, and that the program violates the agency’s responsibility under the 1964 Wilderness Act to preserve the area’s wilderness character, of which the wolves are an integral part. Trying to limit the number of wolves in Wilderness makes no more sense than limiting the number of ponderosa pine, huckleberry bushes, rocks, or rainfall. An untrammeled Wilderness will set its own balance.

The FS’s anemic defense is that it didn’t authorize the killing, therefore there is no reviewable decision for the court to overturn, and that it was still discussing the program with IDFG (while the trapper was in the field killing the wolves). Unfortunately, the district judge sided with the FS and IDFG, so we filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Rather than defend its action before the higher court, Idaho informed the court that it was pulling the trapper out of the Wilderness and would cease the program for this year. In the meantime, nine wolves are needlessly dead.

We will continue to pursue our challenge because the killing program will undoubtedly return. The Forest Service can’t and shouldn’t hide behind the old canard that “the states manage wildlife.”  Congress has charged the FS with preserving the area’s wilderness character and the Supreme Court has held many times that the agency has the authority to interject itself in wildlife management programs to preserve the people’s interest in these lands. Turning a blind-eye is a shameful response for an agency that used to claim the leadership mantle in wilderness stewardship.

Wilderness Watch expresses its deep appreciation to Tim Preso and his colleagues at Earthjustice for waging a stellar legal battle on our behalf and in defense of these wilderness wolves.

George Nickas is the executive director of Wilderness Watch. George joined Wilderness Watch as our policy coordinator in 1996. Prior to Wilderness Watch, George served 11 years as a natural resource specialist and assistant coordinator for the Utah Wilderness Association. George is regularly invited to make presentations at national wilderness conferences, agency training sessions, and other gatherings where wilderness protection is discussed.

18 thoughts on “Of Wolves and Wilderness”

  1. No this is something groups like Wilderness Watch, Defenders of Wildlife, Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, should be focused on. The slaughter of these wolves should never have happened. Maybe predator control should be focused on the insidious invaders.

  2. I find it ironic that in the Frank Church Wilderness (check out those acronyms!) there were no wolves at all when it was designated with that zoning definition in 1980. None. Then they were reintroduced into the area in the 1990s with wolves from Canada. And — that quickly — they have now somehow become “integral” to the Wilderness experience. So much for “trammeling.”

    Nickas tips his hand when he states, “An untrammeled Wilderness will set its own balance.” Add in all of his “shameless” adjectives and it becomes apparent why these organizations have been losing so much credibility during the past decade. False statements, simplistic theories, garbled “science” and verbal shaming really don’t add up to much. Maybe for fundraising purposes they do.

    • It is funny as I read your comment that I have just finished reading parts of the scientific peer-review of the Service’s delisting proposal. The reviewers unanimously rejected the Service’s science because of relied, in part, on dated and disproven morphometric classification systems from 80 years ago. The most current taxonomic renderings consider three genetic units at play in the West: the Pacific Coastal, Mexican and Rockies, with mixtures of those genetic units in Oregon, Washington and California–the latter containing markers from all three units. That indicates that the wolves that we put in Yellowstone and central Idaho were part of the Rockies unit and therefore appropriate.

      This critique and recent studies also indicate that habitat play a big role in determining the eventual make up of the genetic units and their various mixings. Essentially arguing that even if the mix or unit were a little “off” that selective forces would quickly correct the situation. I hope you can understand my amusement when you enter the fray using these 80 year-old, pre-genetic analyses based arguments as a reason for questioning the scientific validity of the arguments of others. Do you see how problematic that can be?

      • Hi Bob:

        Of course I see how problematic that can be — the problems are everywhere we look. Maybe I’m using “80-year old” arguments because I “entered the fray” 40 years ago when the ESA was first established, using information available at that time — much of which was only 40 years old (today’s “80”), and most of it dating back to the 1850s and Darwin. I can see why you are so amused!

        I think your arguments should be extended to hoot owls, marbled murrelets, and black-backed woodpeckers, too, and to bladderpods. By the way, who — exactly — is in charge of determining the “most current taxonomic renderings” of these animals? Is there something in the ESA on that?

        Also — thanks for using your real name to back up your thoughts and assertions. I am curious, though, about the “we” who reintroduced wolves into Yelowstone. Are you or your organization one of the responsible parties in that action?

        • I bickered with Bob F some time ago on a hunters’ forum — He’s from Defenders of Wildlife, having been their VP of “species conservation” during the wolf-reintroduction timeframe. Now he’s opposing carbon with Cascadia Wildlands. He was with Defenders all through the introduction timeframe. He’s part of the “we.”
          And Z, keep in mind that lit review independent peerage thing Bob F is citing was chaired by the guy who did the spotted owl review and is saying we need to shoot barreds. I just glanced through it, have not seriously reviewed it, but it seems to point at the microtaxonomic nitpickery that will provide justification for classifications of subspecies as DPS’s all on their own, in all available habitat — something Mr. Ferris has supported publicly.

          • Micro-taxonomic nitpickery? That is a beautiful, but meaningless characterization on today’s market. And you need to read the peer-review and the critiqued US FWS paper again. If anything the review and science are supporting the 1978 re-listing and arguing against the huge array of sub-species identified morphometrically by Goldman in 1944. And we did not bicker on that hunting site. You made a number of declarative, but unsupported statements and I explained where and why they did not match up with experience or current studies.

        • If you have been following it that long then you understand that the species was re-listed in 1978 because the Service acknowledged that the understanding of wolf genetics and therefore classification was evolving. The ESA listing process is one of the only processes in US law that has the best available science standard. I was one of the biologists who went north in 1996 when the government was shutdown to capture those wolves when I was with Defenders of Wildlife so yes I am, in part, responsible. I also raised money for and oversaw Defenders compensation program for nearly 8 years.

          • Thanks, Bob:

            If that is accurate, then maybe the ESA was premature, given that our understanding of species “is evolving.” Certainly, I think we can all agree that now would be an excellent time to systematically reconsider the ESA and to update it during that process. Otherwise we keeping getting million-dollar bladderworts, billion dollar hoot owls, and out-of-state and international wolf trafficking.

            To say that the “ESA listing process is one of the only processes in US law that has the best available science standard,” begs the question: What — exactly — IS “the best available science standard,” and where can I get a copy? I’m guessing it is significantly different than the BAS standards proposed by Alan Moghissi: http://www.esipri.org/Library/Evergreen_2012.pdf

            I’m also guessing that you are getting ready to point me toward a government regulation written by a lawyer, rather than something from a scientific source that has been independently peer reviewed. The “science” field also includes members who are not biologists, and I’m finding most weaknesses in ESA determinations are a result of not involving political scientists, economists, anthropologists, sociologists, and/or historical ecologists into the mix. It is important to understand people and their local communities when considering “habitat,” too.

            • Bob, I take science seriously so please do not roll out this tired ESIPRI smokescreen of disenchanted scientific marginalia. I grow very tired of slide rule-era engineers and their allies trying to be natural resource ecologists and wildlife biologists not realizing that their unawareness of the ecological consequences is, in many cases, the reason why we are in the state we are. I have been through all of this with Norman. And hint for the future: If you want to promote this group as credible make sure their website isn’t a wasteland of broken links and a conglomeration of different styles and formats. Real scientists doing credible work and respected by their colleagues are regularly involved in peer-review; they do not have to go through the extraordinary steps of creating a failing, non-profit consulting firm to do independent peer-reviews.

              • Bob:

                So far you have been very restrained in your insults, claiming that my ideas are naive and laughable, and that I don’t take science seriously — at least not as seriously as you do. It must be wonderful to be so serious, to have all the answers, performing work as a “real scientist,” and yet finding the time to amuse yourself with us lesser beings.

                I gave you a link to an Evergreen magazine article about Alan Moghissi and his concepts of BAS. The fact that you would use that opportunity to belittle a website that has never been completed or publicly launched and an organization still in its formative stages says a lot about your style of argument. The topic was “best available science” (which you dodged) and Alan Moghissi (whom you magically replaced with Norm MacLeod). Other than that, you stayed on topic, sort of.

                It might disturb you to know that my training is as a natural resource ecologist — just from the fire-using biped perspective, rather than birds or dogs. I’m sure you must have been fully “aware of the ecological consequences” when you helped reintroduce wolves into the US, given your stature and your insights. And apparently that has something to do with “the state we are in” — which somehow seems to be a bad thing in your eyes. As a “real scientist,” I would be very curious as to what types of reviews you have actually done, and where they can be obtained for consideration, since you must be “regularly involved” in the process.

                • Bob, I know your background and know your credentials–easy enough to find on the internet as are mine. Evergreen Magazine which you and Mr. Skinner write for is hardly without a “view” as the board of the organization is entirely associated with the forest products industry. They are certainly not in the business of forwarding a platform of defensible, objective forest ecology or biodiversity protection.

                  You do have a background in forestry and forestry education, but Mr. Skinner writes in the publication simply because he has a “conservative” and anti-regulatory point which I suspect that you share in common with him as well as with Norman MacLeod who was the immediate past-executive director of ESIPRI. As to Physical Chemist Alan Moghissi he too has right wing credentials and is on the advisory board of the National Wilderness Institute–part of the wise-use movement. So come on, enough with the pretense.

                  On the topic of ESIPRI, the organization was founded in 2009–so it is young but hardly in its infancy. And that is certainly long enough to develop a rudimentary and functional website.

                  Yes I am familiar with the peer-review process and have participated on both sides of the equation, though less so at this point but I regularly interact with scientists on a number of ecological and resource issues. As well as do guest lectures at universities.

                  • Bob:

                    Point of fact: I don’t write for Evergreen, although I have been interviewed and profiled in the magazine at different times over the past 20 years. Same with Jerry Franklin and Norm Johnson and a slew of other forest scientists and resource managers. Dave Skinner is a professional journalist and writes for a number of magazines, including Evergreen. The purpose of Evergreen is to reach out to professionals and others with an interest in forest science and resource management topics in Plain English, using maps, tables, graphs, and photographs to illustrate key points. On both (or all) sides of the table. So you are correct when you state: “They are certainly not in the business of forwarding a platform of defensible, objective forest ecology or biodiversity protection.” No, they are not. Those sound very much like political positions with a veneer of “science” to make them sound reasonable. It doesn’t sound like you are familiar with the makeup of their Board, either, but it certainly isn’t forest industry reps.

                    What you suspect Dave’s political views, or mine, or Norm’s, or Alan Moghissi’s are or might be, is irrelevant. I could probably guess your “liberal” political perspectives, too, if that is what this discussion is actually about. I’m pretty sure that ESIPRI’s mission was not to create a website ASAP, but to create a functional organization in which its website served a purpose — after the organization actually began operations, not before. By ESIPRI not meeting your arbitrary timetable, is that somehow a reason for you avoiding direct questions to your own statements, or considerations of Moghissi’s perspectives on “best available science?” Those certainly seem like unrelated topics from where I sit.

                    It is one thing to be dismissive and another to be evasive, but you seem determined to take both paths at the same time. Why not just back up your own statements instead? I’ve asked reasonable questions based on your assertions, or should we just change the subject to Miley Cyrus or the current politics of your organization instead?

                    • Bob, You questioned the peer-review of the Service’s delisting proposal and then offered up what you considered a stronger alternative proffered by organization with little real legitimacy or accomplishment, but with a board and leadership with strong ties to conservative politics. And the alternative was published in a magazine run by and for the wood products industry. Those are legitimate concerns, particularly when you have a physical chemist who thinks he is a likely candidate to sit of the advisory board of an organization dealing with wilderness.

                      You talked about short-comings of the ESA and also about long-term understanding about wolf subspecies and speciation. My sense from your comments is that you have a limited background in genetics, mammalian taxonomy and ecological principles. Have you taken substantive coursework in any of these three disciplines? Forestry is a respected discipline but it should not be confused with ecology or wildlife biology. I remember consulting on a project in the early 1980s where a forester was trying to use a cruise program to determine the ecological value of a particularly stand of trees.

                    • Bob:

                      Please read what I actually wrote, not what you are now claiming I wrote. Two different animals, and you are getting even further off-topic in addition to just making things up. This is not putting your “real scientist” claims in a very good light.

                      You brought up a “standard” for “best available science” (BAS) and claimed that ESA listing relied upon that — one of a very few agencies so-inclined, in fact. And I challenged you to compare that “standard” with Alan Moghissi’s perceptions of that term (he’s a widely recognized authority on the topic) and linked an interview with him that appeared in Evergreen magazine.

                      It was YOU, not me, that brought up the topic of ESIPRI, and then began tearing the organization, board, and website apart, along with your perceived “insights” into the politics of ESIPRI, Evergreen, me, Moghissi, Dave Skinner, and Norm MacLeod. Quite the weird stretch and I called you on it. Now you’re claiming that I’m the one who brought the topic up in the first place?

                      Also, I said NOTHING about “long-term understanding about wolf subspecies and speciation.” That is just you making more stuff up and trying to put the words into my mouth. I said I had been following ESA since its inception 40 years ago. Mostly I have focused on spotted owls, although I have stayed current with the wolf issue via my friend, Charles Kay, and via correspondence with Val Geist — two well-know wolf experts. Again, read what I said about studying — and documenting — the role of people in the environment. And on a landscape-scale. Not genetic-, specimen-, or plot-scale. The focus of my research is precontact and early historical cultural landscape patterns and fire history: what you likely refer to as “critical habitat” and “natural fire regimes.”

                      Also, I am not a Forester, don’t claim to be, never have (although I’ve functioned as one at times) and that is just you making up even more stuff up for me to claim, again. For a scientist of your self-acclaimed stature and abilities, I must say I’m a little shocked at your poor reading comprehension skills and your most-recent attempts at logic. Making straw men out of fake straw is not a very ethical approach, in my opinion, and is too-easily exposed.

                      You seem to feel free to make snide and insulting remarks in my direction and the direction of others with opinions other than your own, and perfectly willing to put false words and fake politics into my mouth apparently just so you can mock or question them. I think I already have a fair insight as to what you mean when you use such phrases as “ecological principles” (and who you probably voted for for President). That’s probably all I need for the time being.

                      You might want to re-read what I have actually written, and respond to those questions first, before involving me in any more of your flights of fancy or forced political arguments.

                    • Bob, The link you used to introduce Alan and Evergreen was an ESIPRI link, ergo you brought them into the discussion. And I have no doubt that you know Val Giest and Charles Kay for reasons already discussed. I read some of Giest’s papers when I was graduate school studying deer, but he seems to have lost his path at some point. Recently he tried to testify as an expert on wolves in Canada and the court refused to let him testify in that capacity.

                      As to Alan one of my favorite quotes about him is: Moghissi served on a panel created by the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute in cooperation with Consumer Alert and the National Consumer Coalition to challenge the EPA’s policy requiring asbestos removal from schools and other public buildings. [4] more at: http://www.desmogblog.com/alan-moghissi

                      Seems like a real prince.

  3. I sense the main point of this post is not the killing of the wolves, but the attitudes and illegal (in my opinion) actions of the USFS in respect to protecting the area under the requirements of the Wilderness Act.
    There is no justification for permitting the use of the copter for wolf tagging. This action was not taken to protect human life or any emergency allowed under the Act or regulations. It was just for the ease of access of the IFG people. They could have hiked or horsebacked into the area.
    No one can say with absolute certainty that there were no wolves in this very large, wild area before the introduction of more wolves. That whole mindset-that these wolves are not “natural” therefore we can kill them with impunity- is still no excuse for the USFS to allow any anti-Wilderness Act activities.
    All in all, a sad and discouraging story for me, as a former USFS professional, who once “wore green underwear” and was proud to be a part of the agency. If I were the Forest Supervisor or Regional Forester, this DFR would be gone…somewhere far from a ranger district.

    • I guess you’ll be upset to learn, Ed, that Idaho Legislature is advancing legislation to appropriate 2 million bucks to zap 500 wolves. Four grand a wolf. But when you consider that ungulate populations are a sixth of pre-wolf populations in occupied wolf habitat, according to that report out of UM, then maybe taking out animals that act as unregulated poachers makes economic sense.

      • Only if you consider natural processes in functional ecosystems to have no value.

        Your statement that wolves are “poachers” (assigning the taint of illegality to a natural predator) is telling.


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