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A Yellowstone Wolf-Watching Guide Wonders Aloud: What Century Are We Living In?

In this op-ed, Phil Knight says that given new laws in Montana and Idaho designed to decimate wolf numbers, it's time to restore federal protection for lobos

The gray wolf, once considered a great American conservation success story, is now being targeted for decimation by states using arguments that have no basis in fact, experts say. Photo courtesy John and Karen Hollingsworth/US Fish and Wildlife Service
The gray wolf, once considered a great American conservation success story, is now being targeted for decimation by states using arguments that have no basis in fact, experts say. Photo courtesy John and Karen Hollingsworth/US Fish and Wildlife Service

An Op-Ed by Phil Knight

It is time to put gray wolves back on the federal endangered list. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has the power to re-list wolves, which she must do before Montana and Idaho wipe them out and erase 25 years of conservation and success. This is an emergency.

I am not alone in stating this opinion. Recently, Dan Ashe, former national director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, wrote in The Washington Post that he supported delisting of wolves from federal protection and considered the species recovered but actions taken by Western states and Wisconsin have forced him to reverse course. 

Re-listing will mean wolves can no longer be hunted in he Lower 48 and will override state laws, including some currently on the books in Wyoming, that are increasingly geared toward killing as many wolves as possible.

In 1992 I helped stage a rally in Yellowstone National Park in support of reintroducing wolves to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The banner I made read “Bring Back the Wolf” appeared in a photo in Rolling Stone magazine. Photos of this rally are available on the Yellowstone National Park historic photo archive. As you know, wolves were successfully reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995 and 1996. 

As a citizen, I am proud of my support for this incredible program. Wolves have brought about a whole new era of conservation in Yellowstone.

And now, as a tour guide in Yellowstone Park, I enjoy the results of wolf reintroduction every time I show my clients some wolves. People are absolutely thrilled to see them— especially young people. It gives me hope. But when I describe how wolves are hunted in the states surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks, and how Montana and Idaho are now trying to once again exterminate wild wolves, my clients cannot believe it. Kids especially want to know why. “Why do people hate wolves?” they ask. Why indeed?

What is it with humans that so many people hate wolves? You would think people were actually scared of these big wild dogs. Oh no, they declare. The Big Bad Wolf.  Run away.

Domestic dogs, bears, bison, coyotes, mountain lions, alligators, even pet cats, injure far more people than wolves ever have. And of course the most dangerous animal out there is a human with a car or a gun. In Yellowstone National Park, not one person has been injured by a wolf.
Domestic dogs, bears, bison, coyotes, mountain lions, alligators, even pet cats, injure far more people than wolves ever have. And of course the most dangerous animal out there is a human with a car or a gun. In Yellowstone National Park, not one person has been injured by a wolf.
Obviously it is not your everyday Yellowstone tourist who hates wolves. Wolves, grizzly bears, bison, all are in the crosshairs owed to legislators in Montana and Idaho and the governors who signed anti-wolf bills into law. 

These are the people that want to wipe out native predators like wolves and take us back to the bad old days of kill to exterminate. They have forgotten that we would not have any wildlife left if not for conservation programs and wildlife protection laws and reintroduction programs. No, the state governments act like it’s 1900 all over again and we have to beat back the predators before they overrun us and kill us all. It’s a battle for control of the land, it’s neo-Manifest Destiny..

Haven’t we evolved at all?  Haven’t we slaughtered enough wildlife? Are we merely savages, emerging from caves to rein havoc and destruction on nature?

° ° ° °

I saw my first wild wolves in 1997—in Yellowstone on the Blacktail Plateau. It was an unforgettable moment, a culmination of years of hope and effort, and proof that Yellowstone’s keystone predator was back in business. I have watched wolves hundreds of times since and it never gets old. 

In March of 2020, I and some clients watched the entire Wapiti Lake pack, 19 strong, put their heads back and have a howling contest with a distant wolf pack. Their mournful calls echoed across the hills and their breath steamed up the below zero air. We experienced an ancient and moving scene of wild nature, a vision of the Pleistocene, an echo of an ancient world that is vanishing before our eyes. My clients were absolutely glowing with the thrill of it all.

Meanwhile, in Helena and Boise, state lawmakers were writing bills that would wipe out most of the wolves in Idaho and Montana. Idaho passed a law that 90 per cent of the wolves in the state must be eliminated. Ninety per cent. What century is this? What kind of hick backwaters have Idaho and Montana become? Have we really come to this—an animal we once nearly wiped out, then had the heart and the will to bring back, we now must wipe them out again?

Montana passed laws signed by Gov. Gianforte—who illegally trapped a Yellowstone wolf this spring (#1155)—now allowing an extended wolf hunting season; allowing a killer with one hunting tag to kill as many wolves as he or she wants to; legalizing the use of snares to trap wolves (this is legalized strangulation), allowing night hunting of wolves with scopes and lights. Montana is even paying bounties to wolf hunters. Again, what century is this?

All of these hunting techniques, especially trapping and snaring, will catch and kill a variety of non-target species, such as grizzly bears, wolverine, elk, moose, lynx, fox, bobcats, mountain lions, and yes – pet dogs. And trapping is now legal on your private land even if you do not give permission. It is illegal to tamper with a trap even if your dog is caught in it, yelping and suffering and dying. Not only that, but traps can be set right along public trails and waterways. Traps are often concealed. You yourself may step in a leghold trap set for a wolf. And the trapper is not at fault—you and your pet are.

Idaho, meanwhile, is not even pretending that it is allowing more wolf hunting. They are hiring government killers to use any means available, such as helicopters and high powered rifles, to gun down wolves wherever they exist, including in protected Wilderness areas. This is truly a war on Wolves. A one-sided war.

It’s bad enough that wolves have become a trophy animal for people to kill purely for self-gratification (no one eats them). I had almost come to accept that we were stuck with wolf hunting in the Northern Rockies. 

But Montana and Idaho had to ramp it up and crank up the hate and the torture. The state legislatures have put their hatred and nastiness on display for all Americans to see. Wyoming used to be the wolf hater state – they killed so many wolves in 2012-2013 that wolves were temporarily re-listed in Wyoming – but Montana and Idaho have now outdone ultra-conservative Wyoming.

Let’s not forget who delisted wolves to begin with. Wolves are the only animal ever removed from endangered status by Congress (in 2012 wolves were delisted in the Northern Rockies by a rider on a larger bill). 

New laws in Idaho and Montana allow the killing of wolf pups. In Wyoming across 85 percent of the state, it is legal to kill wolf pups any day of the year,  at any hour, using almost any means possible, including pouring gasoline into dens and burning them. Killing pups violates the fair chase hunting ethics promoted by Theodore Roosevelt and others. Photo courtesy Hilary Cooley/USFWS
New laws in Idaho and Montana allow the killing of wolf pups. In Wyoming across 85 percent of the state, it is legal to kill wolf pups any day of the year, at any hour, using almost any means possible, including pouring gasoline into dens and burning them. Killing pups violates the fair chase hunting ethics promoted by Theodore Roosevelt and others. Photo courtesy Hilary Cooley/USFWS
US Sen. Jon Tester of Montana introduced the legislative amendment that kicked the wolves into the greedy hands of the state fish and game agencies. The rule was crafted by none other than former Tester aid Tracy Stone-Manning, who is poised to become director of the Bureau of Land Management. In 2020 the Trump Administration delisted wolves nationwide, thus exposing Midwestern wolves to hunting, resulting in a mass slaughter of wolves in Wisconsin. Read the response from scientists here.

Ranchers of course claim wolves are a big threat to their livestock, but fewer than one percent of livestock in Montana are killed by wolves (weather and disease take a much higher toll). And shameless hunters with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation would have you believe there are few elk left because wolves are eating them, but nearly every hunting district in Montana is at or above target numbers for elk. Overall state elk populations are about 40,000 above the target.

What about wildlife diseases? You would think if you were an elk hunter you would be freaked out about Chronic Wasting Disease, an incurable and always fatal prion disease (think Mad Cow Disease) that is sweeping through Montana’s elk and deer populations. CWD is already spread across much of Wyoming. It’s no secret that wolves kill weak and sick animals. They could help slow the spread of CWD. How else do the state fish and game agencies propose to address CWD? They do not have any plan. No, instead they scapegoat the wolves and kill them.

If we cannot respect and coexist with other species, with other forms of life, how can we expect to coexist with other cultures? How can we exist peacefully with people different from us?  How can we survive if survival only means self- interest?

 If we keep waging war on wolves and on nature, we threaten our own existence as well.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Do you agree or disagree with Phil Knight's opinion above? Write us by clicking here. If you are civil and respectful we'll publish your thoughts here as a response. 

We've received a huge outpouring of reader responses to Phil Knight's op-ed. Here is just a sampling: 

I just wrote a response to the article about the wolves but my phone battery died when I clicked submit so I don't know if it went through or not. I have to send it again because it's just to important an issue for my concerns to not be heard and maybe a question answered. The wolf killing allowed in the states around Yellowstone ( or wolf killing in any state) is an emergency that requires immediate action. We, the American people, cannot sit back and helplessly watch it happen. The federal government should take action now, today. We don't have months to wait for a decision to relist. Hunters will wipe out the entire population in a weekend. If the government doesn't take action immediately what are we to do? Protests, marches, over throw fish and game? I don't know what the solution is but drastic measures are needed. What about trapping and moving all the wolves from the states that allow killing to states like CA and CO? I'm in AZ. I wish we had wolves here. NY and NJ are currently overrun with deer.In NY state there is a deer related vehicle crash every eight minutes. Seems to me that would be a perfect place to move wolves to and if they are functioning with a purpose( bringing down the deer population) then they will be more acceptable to the residents of the state. Even if there isn't legitimate studies saying predators affect prey populations it's more believable than what supporters of wolf killing say.
—Kim Boss in Arizona.  Note to Kim: Thanks for your letter. Here is link to a MoJo story about research showing that wolf presence saves money and lives in Wisconsin by reducing deer-vehicle collisions.


You are an idiot.
—Frank Kroll in Montana


This article alarms me and upsets me greatly. Why on earth do these hypocrits believe they have to kill wolves?? They go home, and love on they're dogs, but want to exterminate their wild cousins, why?
—Lawrence Ashba in MIssissippi


Why is Haaland playing around with this and wasting time? Once those 'humans' (if you want to call them that) start killing, there is no stopping it. I am very angry Halaand and Biden are not moving on this. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is not a service. They are greedy, bought and paid for by ranchers who are just as greedy. All of the people in that outfit must be replaced with true conservationists. End this craziness for good.
—Terry Chupik in Houston, Texas


I'd like to commend Phil on this important article. What's happening to wolves in this country is deplorable. It must be stopped. The more light we can shed on this tragic chapter the better. Thank you for printing this and thank you, Phil, for writing it. Keep up the noble work.
—Ellen Perry in northern California


I don't understand why humans think they are GOD. Who gives us the right to Kill everything and anything we want when ever we want. Wolves play a big part in this world and have been around for a long time. I think it is time to put them back on the endangered species list. Please please stop the killing of wolves.
Let nature do its job without us playing God. 
—Leija Lisa in Arizona


I agree wholeheartedly with this article against shooting wolves. They are endangered no matter what the states o Idaho, Montana and Wyoming say. Snares and traps are also extremely cruel and shooting wolf pups is just despicable. I can't believe our new administration is doing absolutely nothing on this.
—James Manning in northeast Ohio


I strongly agree with Phil knight and his article about relisting wolves. It's an outrage and tragedy what the states of Idaho and Montana are doing. Our fish and wildlife agencies are solely motivated by the income from hunting licenses and pursuaded by hunting and ranching lobby groups. Listen to the scientist not the ignorant and afraid.
—Cody Looman in Colorado


I just want to express that I absolutely agree with Mr. Phil Knight!!!! It's absolutely absurd the way things have "degressed"!!! I don't understand this primitive way of thinking, and dealing with wolves!! They have a right to be here!!! They were put on this earth by God, and they should be respected, just as we do grizzlies!! Thank you Mountain Journal for this article, and allowing us to comment!!
—Linda Sue Hartle in central Florida


Listing wolves should, repeat should, go without saying, but here we are, still arguing and still trying. Got no other choice, it appears.
—Dr. Brian Horejsi, PhD in wildlife biology, Alberta, Canada


Tell people where they got the wolves to reintroduce. Canada?
—Bernard Littlejohn in British Columbia, Canada


I read Phil Knight's OpEd on "What Century is This" and totally support his contention that wolves should be relisted. Further, trapping needs to be eliminated as a brutal and heartless tool of the ignorant. Ranchers need to accept their losses as they occupy and destroy habitat on public lands and selfishly, having moved into elk and wolf territory, want them gone.
—John Carter in Utah


Dynamite work by Phil K. Thanks, Mojo.
—Paul Edwards in Montana


I agree completely with Phil Knight’s op-ed on wolves. Deb Haaland must relist wolves under the ESA. We are in dark times with republicans being ignorant of wildlife ecology, simply not caring, or worse, perversely knowing what they are doing which is a particular kind of psychopathy. I sincerely hope all people will speak out against this atrocity. And I hope Jon Tester and Tracy Stone-Manning will admit they were wrong and support re-listing.
—Denise Boggs in Montana


I totally agree with every word of this article.
—Madelon Daniels in Wyoming


I do agree with Phil Knight, I love his words of wisdom and his determination to protect the wolves. He is absolutely amazing! I want so much to protect the wolves too!
Stop the killing and save the wolves, the wolves deserve to live!
—Bethany Garrett in Dallas, Texas


Hello! I am Bethany's mother, Carol. I totally and definitely agree with Phil Knight! Please save the wolves and I pray we can stop the killings. I hope President Biden can help and soon!!! Thank you, Phil Knight, for speaking out and making people aware.


What can l do to help? I am concerned about the killing of all the gray wolves.
—Rebecca Walton in central Ohio


Just writing to say Amen to Phil's thoughts so well expressed in his article. Thank you for nailing the subject so well and truthfully.
—Carolyn Hopper in Bozeman, Montana


Just read murder of our wolves article by Phil knight and I am so outraged by the pure hate directed @ these beautiful majestic works of God's art. These waste of space destructors causing so much suffering outrages me to no end, why do they get to decide & declare death sentences? What about people like Phil knight and all of us who love and treasure the wolves, why don't we have a say? Thank you for exposing the crimes inflicted on our beautiful wolves; uniting, goodwill can overcome evil, this i know.
—Leslie Brown in the Texas Hill Country


Reading Phil Knight on wolves, I believe he's all heart. But why would anyone with a heart as well as brains enough to know that wolves kidnaped in Canada in the mid-nineties and dumped in Yellowstone in the middle of winter and eventually handed over to states to manage, support the reintroduction? Knight talks about the awe and pleasure he and tourists experience from wolves in Yellowstone. We all knew what would happen to these animals eventually from the time the federal Fish and Wildlife Service  first announced their plan that included eventual state management. Just strange how anyone could've supported that plan knowing it was going to cost untold numbers of wolves, families, pups, their lives. Did wolves deserve to have to pay with their lives to satisfy any human whim humans decide to 'use' them for, whether to entertain park tourists, or improve the Yellowstone's ecosystem? Ranching states expressed their outrage over the reintroduction from day one and have waited patiently to claim their pound of flesh. That's what century it is, Phil Knight, the century for wolves to suffer as in the previous century.  PS: I don't understand; I was directed here to comment on an article re wolves but this is obviously not accepting my comment so guess was a waste of my time.
—Marilyn Leybra in New York State


We must unite as concerned Americans to get wolves listed before the horrific suffering takes place. These are intelligent animals that show many emotions in their pack toward one another. Wolf haters could learn a lot about the 25-year study in Yellowstone National Park. Wolves are important to the ecosystem as well. So why is this happening, why are we not learning from our past. Wolf killers have no heart as well as some elected officials it seems. Our voice is equally important. MoJo please educate your readers in how to go up against the wolf haters.
—Katherine Cabaniss in central California


I am writing from Australia, absolutely bewildered by the campaign to legalize the killing of wolves. Have these regulatory agencies not heard of the great Aldo Leopold and "Thinking Like a Mountain"? Leopold's text is a must read for those blindly killing off wolf communities. " I have seen state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn … In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers … So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf’s job of trimming the herd to fit the change. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea."

—Terry Muir in New South Wales, AustraliaNote to Terry:  Leopold's thinking is also noted in a recent Mountain Journal profile about biologist Mike Phillips being given The Aldo Leopold Memorial Award by The Wildlife Society and it is featured in an interview MoJo conducted with Leopold scholar Curt Meine on the 70th anniversary of the publishing of A Sand County Almanac.


Reading Phil Knight’s article on proposed wolf population management policies in Idaho and Montana I couldn’t help but feel like he was intentionally obfuscating the complex nature of predator population management in favor of salacious, click bait lines like “What Century is This?”  Personally, I don’t agree with the proposed regulations allowing for extensive wolf hunting and trapping, and I agree with his basic premise that wolves are not the biggest threat to ranchers or sportsmen. However, his characterization of the issue was incredibly disingenuous in that he completely elides the very real consequences and complications that come with coexisting alongside a large predator species like wolves. I think the story of African wildlife management with regard to elephants, lions and other large, dangerous and potentially destructive animals is illustrative. In areas without significant private funding for exclusive wildlife use (no farming, ranching, or people living on the land) large game populations, and particularly those of elephants and lions, are in dire straits. The most successful conservation tactic outside of simply buying private conservation preserves has been something similar to the North American Wildlife Management Model where animals are essentially monetized and populations are regulated by hunting and trapping to fit within levels of acceptable human/wildlife conflict. Lest we Americans simply think ourselves morally superior to the African farmers who poison or shoot elephants and lions to protect livestock and crops, it is worth remembering that large predators have been extirpated from essentially every single part of the United States where they previously came into significant contact with human beings. Furthermore, every single state currently regulates a variety of animal populations via lethal control methods because the consequences or unregulated deer, beaver, varmints, coyotes etc., are problematic to our current ways of life. We can and should have a conversation about how to better integrate human occupied lands with the natural environment, but no sane wildlife biologist would recommend trying to reintroduce wolves or grizzlies across most of their original range because the level of wildlife/human conflict would make the situation entirely untenable. The same goes for something like banning deer hunting- the eastern whitetail population would entirely decimate the land in a matter of years and no suburbanite actually has any interest in allowing wolf packs to run down and kill deer (the way nature intended population management) amidst the sidewalks and fenced backyards of their neighborhood.  

Should we have a more circumspect and thoughtful conversation around how to preserve wild places that currently exist and allow predators like wolves to flourish in those places? Absolutely, yes we should. But puff-piece articles like this that present the issue in the narrowest and most intellectually dishonest way possible do nothing to help the imperiled wolf population and actively generate resentment and reactivity from the people on the ground who actually have to deal with and manage the complications arising from the burgeoning wolf population. This article didn’t meet the high standards of investigative, thoughtful journalism that MoJo typically publishes and I think if people really care about this issue everyone would be much better served by engaging in a real discussion of the complexities and trade offs created by the decision to reintroduce wolves and continue to allow their geographic expansion. Phil’s article castigating hunters as evil villains who delight in cruelty or ranchers as greedy, thoughtless freeloaders misses the boat, sows resentment, and does absolutely nothing but rile up people up without offering any functional solutions.
—Michael Veasey


Just a note of support for Phil Knight's article about MT and ID's ridiculous campaigns to exterminate wolves. Phil is right on. I do question one statement Phil made however: "And trapping is now legal on your private land even if you do not give permission. " Is this really true? I find that hard to believe, but—then again—much of what has unfolded is hard to believe. Thanks for your thoughtful stories and work on behalf of our wild world.
—Beth Madden in Montana  Note to Beth: You are right. The statement in Knight's piece that wolf trapping can occur on private property on Montana without the landowner's permission is in error.  Such trespassing is illegal.

Phil Knight
About Phil Knight

Phil Knight, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a conservationist for many decades. Besides being a leader in promoting protection of wilderness and old-growth forests in the U.S. and abroad, he is an avid outdoor recreationist, author of the book Into Deepest Yellowstone, and leader of popular nature tours.
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