So here were are again... less than a week after reconsideration of the conservation status and talks of possibly lifting the ban on killing great white sharks in Australia, the North American state of Wyoming have legalised 'on-sight' killing of gray wolves outside National Park boundaries, effective from September 30th.
The positives to draw from this are of course that this is proof that thanks to the conservation efforts of the 1990's, the gray wolf, once extinct from Yellowstone, is once again roaming the vast landscapes and completing the picture of John Muir's real wilderness. Government predator control programmes and fur trader hunting resulted in the near extinction, of the already declining, gray wolf by the 1930's, with the last wolf being killed in Yellowstone in 1926. In the absence of this apex predator, the elk population of Yellowstone became critically high and the ecosystem was unbalanced and suffering from over grazing. When relocation of elk herds was unsuccessful and 30 years of culling was ineffective, whispers of reintroducing the wolves began.
Roots of the wolf reintroduction were embedded in several local studies throughout the 1940's and 1950's, then coupled with the environmental movement of the 1960's, the listing of the species under the Endangered Species Act 1973 and the encouragement of the general public, the government were compelled to make the move.
In January 1995, 14 wolves from Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada, were released in two separate shipments and... thrived. Over the last two decades the Yellowstone wolf population has gone from strength to strength, peaking in 2003/04 and eventually levelling out to the stable population of around 100 individuals that exist in 10 packs today. The gray wolf was removed from the endangered species list in 2009.
This has always been a conservation fairy tale that I have treasured since university and I have made it a personal goal of mine to one day travel here and spend several days getting lost with the wolves of Yellowstone. But like a lot of things, it seems revelling in this success is to be short lived as the decision-makers, once again make the wrong one, by allowing and condoning the behaviour that created the problem in the first place.
Yes, under the new rules Wyoming must maintain at least 10 breeding pairs of wolves and no fewer than 100 animals at any one time, but ranchers and farmers have spent decades arguing that wolves will take livestock and have demanded the right to 'control' them. Yellowstone wolves will still be protected, but the estimated 200 individuals outside the boundaries are now on their own, despite possibly providing the future populations of Yellowstone if the existing ones struggle. If a cull is necessary, fine. As conservationist, culling has to be embraced as a necessity in many circumstances, but allowing 'Tom, Dick and Harry' to 'control' the population is inevitably going to lead to unregulated and illegal trapping/killing and we know it.
Naturally, I have overwhelming issues with needlessly killing anything, particularly when it’s anthropogenically fuelled, but more than anything, I'm so disappointed. Over the years our elders have taught us that disappointing someone is so much worse than anything else; "I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed". There is nothing more fitting here.
Wyoming is the home of the devastatingly beautiful Yellowstone National Park, famous for its stunning geology and wildlife. Widely held as the world's first national park, established in 1872, Yellowstone holds a special place in the heart of every conservationist and yet now, somehow feels tainted.
Is this to be the outcome of all conservation success stories? What kind of message is this? It's hard enough trying to communicate a voice for wildlife as it is, without outcomes such as this. Why do we insist on encouraging the vicious circle? Twenty years of rewarded effort are now hanging in the balance. Is this an indication of the beginning of conservation's downward spiral? Was the intention only ever to push the success story to the headlines then cast the effort aside and follow the order of the loudest voices anyway?
Conservation has a long way to travel in the next century, let's hope it doesn't take the easy road.
I'll leave you with the Druid Peak pack, a group of wolves introduced to Yellowstone in 1996. After the natural loss of the Alpha female several years ago, the pack slowly demised and now there are no longer any surviving members. A natural process that has made way for a brand new pack that will make Yellowstone their home.
Let’s hope that after the end of September we don't find ourselves in front row seats during the demise of the other ten Yellowstone packs, followed by a backseat in the century fighting for their return. All because we refuse to learn from our mistakes.