In 1984, Hank Fischer, a wolf advocate, organized a meeting with ranchers at a schoolhouse in rural Idaho to discuss a proposal to reintroduce gray wolves to the Northern Rockies. Wolves were eradicated from the region in the 1920s, but there was growing interest from environmentalists in restoring their populations. Tensions were high. As he began his talk amid a sea of cowboy hats, a loud voice bellowed from the back of the room. “Hank Fischer,” the rancher shouted, “ain’t nobody killed you yet?”
It might as well have been a scene out of Kevin Costner’s hit television show Yellowstone. The “wolf wars,” as Fischer later dubbed them in his book by that title, pitted environmentalists against ranchers worried about carnivores killing their livestock. As the regional representative for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, Fischer sought to defuse conflicts over the issue by sitting down with the affected ranchers, understanding their concerns, and finding ways to address the costs of living with wolves.
Despite tensions, Fischer went on to play a key role in the successful reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone and central Idaho in the mid-1990s. His eventual solution involved raising money from wolf-lovers to create a fund for reimbursing ranchers whose livestock were killed by wolves. Although the scheme didn’t completely eliminate the controversy—wolves remained contentious among ranchers—Fischer’s approach significantly reduced conflicts over the reintroduction. Over the next two decades, Defenders of Wildlife paid more than $1 million in livestock losses to ranchers in the region. Wolf populations have since flourished, from 66 animals, reintroduced in 1995, to several thousand across Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and other western states today.
Now, the wolf wars are back. This year, Republican lawmakers in Idaho approved legislation that, if implemented to its full extent, could result in the killing of up to 90 percent of the state’s wolves. The bill removes most limits on wolf-hunting and allows the state to hire private contractors to shoot wolves to protect livestock. Montana’s GOP-controlled legislature approved similar bills that aim to drastically reduce the state’s wolf population. Among the measures passed into law are ones that extend the trapping season, allow hunters to kill an unlimited number of the predators, and authorize controversial hunting methods such as neck-snaring, baiting, and night hunting. The laws captured national attention and prompted outrage from wildlife advocates while drawing praise from rural communities angered by a perceived overabundance of wolves.
These measures, following the long, impressive recovery of wolves, raise fears that decades of conservation work will be undone. Wolf populations in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming now far exceed the initial recovery targets set at the time of their reintroduction. Wolves occupy parts of Washington and Oregon where they hadn’t been seen in nearly a century. Earlier this year, one was spotted in Fresno County in central California. Last year, Colorado voters narrowly approved a ballot measure that requires wildlife officials to reintroduce wolves to the state by 2024, but the requirement may prove to be moot as the species makes its way there on its own. This summer, wildlife officials spotted a den of wolf pups in Colorado, the first evidence since the 1940s that the animals are breeding in the state.
Wolf conflicts are back not just because their populations have recovered but also because federal policy has been slow to respond. Wolves were declared recovered and were removed from the federal endangered-species list throughout most of the lower 48 states in 2013, but the decision was blocked by a federal judge after environmental groups sued. In Wyoming, lawsuits have gotten wolves delisted, relisted, and delisted again over the past decade. It took an act of Congress in 2011 to remove federal protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho after previous delisting attempts were overturned by courts. This year, in January, the Trump administration delisted gray wolves in the lower 48—only to have the incoming Biden administration announce weeks later that it would review the decision.
The lack of an effective off-ramp from federal control under the Endangered Species Act caused a backlash from rural communities forced to live with wolves but with little say about their management. In addition to livestock killed, ranchers point to other costs of living among such large predators, including stressed and underweight calves and reduced rates of livestock pregnancy. Often, ranchers also must hire range riders to look after their herds and implement a variety of nonlethal management practices to reduce conflicts between livestock and wolves, such as installing lights and other visual deterrents, noisemakers, or electric fencing.
Some state wildlife officials fear that the wolf-killing measures approved in Montana and Idaho could lead to wolves’ being relisted under the Endangered Species Act and returned to federal management. Indeed, such pressures are already mounting. In May, a coalition led by the Humane Society of the United States and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition asking Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to use her emergency powers to reinstate federal protections for wolves across the Northern Rockies. This would be unprecedented; delisting decisions have been struck down by courts, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has never relisted a species after declaring it recovered and returning it to state management.
In the West, predator politics mirror broader trends in contemporary American politics, amplified by a stark rural-urban divide. In a sense, wolves have become yet another battleground in today’s hyperpolarized culture wars. As one rancher on Colorado’s Western Slope put it, the state’s recent ballot initiative to reintroduce wolves was an effort by “people on the Front Range—a bunch of city dudes” who were trying to “cram it down our throats.” A recent New York Times article on Montana’s new laws featured comments from wildlife advocates calling the state’s approach “a wholesale war on wildlife” and characterizing rural residents’ concerns about wolves as “bar talk replacing biology.”
But in turning the wolf wars into the culture wars, both sides overplay their hand, to the benefit of neither wolves nor ranchers. By constantly moving the goalposts of recovery, environmentalists have been too reluctant to grant states the flexibility to manage wolf populations, thereby undermining confidence in the Endangered Species Act and the federal government. Meanwhile, by implementing such blunt wolf-killing measures, some Republican legislatures seem eager to give environmentalists plenty of legal ammunition to relist wolves and start the battle all over again.
The truth is that states can manage predators effectively, and the wolves’ recovery over the past several decades is evidence of that. Building on Hank Fischer’s model, many states have created their own compensation programs to defray some of the costs that ranchers incur when wolves kill livestock. Those states understandably want more tools and flexibility — including allowing more frequent lethal removal of wolves that kill or endanger livestock—to manage their growing wolf populations amid human-inhabited landscapes. But states have a responsibility to use these tools wisely and carefully, recognizing that millions of people value the simple fact that wolves have recovered and exist in western states again.
Ultimately, what’s needed are more durable solutions that work for people and wildlife as well. Otherwise, the whole exercise becomes a zero-sum fight that yo-yos with changes in political power. Wolves won’t suddenly become acceptable to ranchers just because residents in Denver or Boulder vote yes on a ballot initiative or because a federal judge declares that the species should be relisted. Nor will ranchers’ problems with wolves go away simply because Republicans hold power in rural America. Wolves are probably here to stay, but for wolf recovery to be sustainable, it will need to work for the communities that are closest to the land and bear most of the costs.
That’s no easy task. As Hank Fischer understood, it will take people working together to understand and address one another’s concerns, compromising when possible—and it will take policies that encourage collaboration rather than conflict. Despite the tensions on display in that Idaho schoolhouse decades ago, Fischer survived the wolf wars. If states and environmentalists follow his example this time around, wolves and ranchers alike can, too.