Connect logo
from the desk of dan ashe

Abject Cruelty Undermines Wolf Recovery

By Dan Ashe
min read

Fasten your reading glasses, or pour yourself a cup of coffee or glass of wine, because this blog will take a good while, and a few good turns.

I’ve been involved in wolf recovery efforts, since the late 1980s, and there’s not much I haven’t heard or seen: good and bad; inspiring and disappointing; and lots and lots of bewildering. But what we’re witnessing today is particularly disturbing—an epidemic of pure, unbridled cruelty, and a rekindling of the prejudice and persecution that essentially extirpated wolves from mainland America back in the early 1900s. It presents a significant risk to one of our nation’s greatest conservation successes. I wrote about it in this piece, recently published in the Washington Post.

Wolf in the grass

Wolves have centuries of mythology and misrepresentation working against them, which shape beliefs about wolves that science can’t easily shake. I’ve spoken to ranchers who believe that wolves, if given the chance, will attack their children, and frankly, I’m confident if a pack of wolves was running around suburban Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, semi-rabid packs of PhD parents would be having a collective fit. If you don’t believe it, I can show you posts from NextDoor where seemingly highly educated folks are demanding action from “animal control” because someone posted a picture of a fox walking down the street in front of their home. But I digress.

Years ago, I spent some time with a rancher, in Montana. He was a great partner in grizzly bear conservation, so I asked about wolves and got a cold, steely look back. Then, with a slow, deliberate tone, he said, “Dan, it’d just be better if we don’t talk about wolves. My grandfather helped drive them out of this county and I just can’t tolerate the thought of them being back.” End of conversation.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Mollie Beattie (L), U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt (C), and Yellowstone Park Superintendent Mike Finley (3rd L) carry the first grey wolf due to be released into Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to a holding pen in the park.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Mollie Beattie (L), U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt (C), and Yellowstone Park Superintendent Mike Finley (3rd L) carry the first grey wolf due to be released into Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to a holding pen in the park. Photo credit: ©POOL/AFP via Getty Images

When I began my U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service career, in 1995, the agency Director was the first-ever woman to hold the job, the late Mollie Beattie. Mollie was passionate about all wild life, but especially wolves. That’s her in this iconic photo with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. In the crate is the first wolf to set paw into Yellowstone National Park since 1926.

About a year later, Mollie and I were in the offices of Montana’s Democratic Senator Max Baucus. Some Montana ranchers were upset about a wolf pack that had taken up residence in the midst of several U.S. Forest Service grazing allotments. The ranchers wanted the Service to authorize USDA Wildlife Services to “remove” the wolves. Since they hadn’t killed any cattle, and were actively denning, Mollie declined.

A week later, we found out that USDA had “made the ranchers happy” by killing several dozen coyotes in the area. I remember Mollie fuming about the “abject cruelty,” and she said she felt like going up there and planting a monument to those coyotes “who had given their lives in support of wolf recovery.”

We’ve come a long, long way in the 25 years since then. Or so I’d thought, until recently. Last year Wisconsin held a poorly organized and managed hunt, just weeks after wolves were removed from Endangered Species Act protections. The state issued nearly 2,400 permits with a quota of 119 animals. It was a literal bloodbath, with at least 218 wolves killed in less than 72 hours. Recently published research indicates that related poaching likely killed another 100 animals, so in total, a third of Wisconsin’s wolves have been killed less than a year after losing ESA protection.

And then the Idaho legislature took matters into their own hands, presumably because they were unsatisfied with Fish and Game Commission harvest regulations that had only resulted in 570 wolves being killed from July 2019 to July 2020. They passed legislating regulations to give every conceivable advantage to “hunters” with the goal of reducing the population by as much as 90 percent.

Montana has followed suit. Almost certainly, Wyoming and Utah will join. Unless the federal government puts a halt to this mayhem. Decades of progress will vanish.

Wolf in snow

A hallmark of our Association of Zoos and Aquariums community is our abiding and overriding concern for the welfare of animals—animals in our care, for sure, but animals everywhere. If we’re going to live this, and make it an enduring part of our community culture, I believe we must stand strongly against animal cruelty, and especially the rebirth of brutal and relentless persecution of wolves that we’re witnessing today. The Rev. Martin Luther King said,

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Our concern for animals, and intolerance for cruelty, can’t stop at a perimeter fence.

That’s why I’d like to enlist you to do a few things:

Every AZA member who holds an advanced degree in science, please consider adding your name to this petition.

I’ve added my name, but don’t let that discourage you. You’ll be in good company with the likes of Jane Goodall, E.O. Wilson, and Tom Lovejoy.

Members and member-employees who are not scientists, please consider signing this petition.

Wolf pack sitting on a rock

Consider sending a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland asking her to exercise her discretionary authority under the Endangered Species Act and put in place an emergency listing of wolves in Idaho and Montana in order to counteract the deliberate efforts of these states to undermine wolf recovery. Make sure to note that the actions of these states constitute a “a significant risk to the well-being” of wolves. That’s the ESA’s standard for emergency listing.

Consider asking your conservation partners, board members, and members to take these actions. And consider using your social media accounts to amplify concerns about this threat to wolf recovery.

Animals in AZA-accredited facilities receive the best care of animals anywhere. This is a moment when we can add our voices to howls of condemnation about actions of abject cruelty towards wolves and show our concern for animals everywhere.

Dan Ashe is the President and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums

Back to All Stories
I Accept

This site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. If you continue using our website, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on this website and you agree to our Privacy Policy.