Suzanne Asha Stone Interview

Suzanne Asha Stone oversees wolf conservation programs for Defenders of Wildlife in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. She also administers Defenders’ wolf compensation programs, working directly with ranchers and farmers to compensate them for wolf-related livestock losses. This interview was conducted in the spring of 2009.

Suzanne Asha Stone

How did you get involved with such a controversial predator?
I have always loved an underdog, and you probably couldn’t pick a bigger underdog than wolves. It’s certainly the most controversial species we have in the state, and I think a lot of that is due to misinformation. It’s due to fear. People rarely are arguing over the facts or over real impacts of wolves. It’s often tied up into all this other baggage that goes along with wolves on both sides. So it makes it challenging to try to get down to the bottom and work with people on solutions to the real problems when you have so many perceived problems out there.

I come from a long line of ranchers and farmers, too. And my interest in wolves really had more to do with looking at the ecosystem as a whole and knowing that all of these species that we have here that are native to our area are important, and that they all fill a specific role; knowing that people have been living with them for thousands of years in other places around the world; knowing that we could bring wolves back and help people understand them both ecologically and as a culture, and as a society; knowing that we’d be better off having a fully intact ecosystem.

And I love the outdoors. I mean this is why I raised my kids here in Idaho. We’re so lucky to have one of the states where we have so much wilderness area. It’s an incredible resource and so largely undiscovered. I think my daughter was about a month old when we went out camping and got to hear wolves howling in the back country, and it was just an incredible thrill to know that we were part of having that effort to bring them back.

What do you see as the positives that wolves bring to Idaho?
They almost fill a role that other predators, including humans, don’t fill. They are particularly keen on their ability to cull animals that are unhealthy, diseased, injured. In fact, what we saw very early on was that the wolves were focusing on animals that were way beyond reproductive abilities, the very old elk and deer.

When wolves were gone, elk and other ungulates like deer and moose, if you wanted to be safe, you stayed out in these big open meadow systems because you could avoid predators like mountain lions and bears. But wolves use these meadow ecosystems for hunting; and so now you’re seeing our elk and deer herds really scattered much more across their habitat and not so dense as they were before.

And that helps a number of other species. So in areas like Bear Valley, you’re seeing re-growth of willow and aspen. Cottonwoods are coming back. So you’re seeing a benefit that ripples down through the whole ecosystem. And that includes songbirds having habitat now; improved habitat for fisheries. We’re seeing beaver come back into places like Lamar where they haven’t been since wolves were eradicated.

We want to see the states take over wolf management, but under a good wolf-delisting plan that guarantees the long-term recovery and sustainability of wolves in the region. We don’t want to see the population decimated after federal protections are lifted.

So, they have an incredible ripple effect in their ecosystem and I think a lot of biologists are calling them now the “bioengineer of ecosystems.” We’re seeing such a recovery going on now that wolves are back.

Are you finding that hunters buy this argument?
Hunters, I think, are going after the animals that are probably the healthiest in the herd, the ones that have the biggest antlers. And you don’t see wolves going after those same animals.

Primarily wolves are going to be hunting animals that are much weaker, either the very young, the very old, diseased, and others. I think that’s kind of a misconception with the hunting community that they’re competing for the same ones. It doesn’t mean that wolves can’t take a bigger animal; if an animal like an elk gets stuck in heavy snow, that can happen. But largely, they’re going after very different animals within the herd.

Two wolves in the grass

In fact, what we’ve seen from the studies is that the target age for a hunter is somewhere in the prime of an elk’s life, somewhere between three to five or seven years of age. And with wolves, it’s 10 years or older.

Who were the most outraged about wolves coming back?
Back 20 some odd years ago, when we first were discussing the idea of bringing wolves back, I think it was the ranchers that really had the most outrage about having wolves coming back. There was a lot of fear in that community.

I remember one meeting in Boise, I think we had over a thousand people that showed up to oppose bringing the wolf back. I think as ranchers have lived with wolves, meetings become calmer, there’s fewer people that attend. I think last year for the delisting hearing, there were less than 25 people from the ranching community that showed up for that.

But, I think that hunting has been the one now that has taken the swing upward in terms of the conflict, and some of it is perceived. There’s definitely been a change in how elk behave, so I think that that leads to the perception that the elk are all gone. But what we’ve seen instead is that the wolf causes a change in the elk’s behavior. So you don’t have these massive herds that act like cattle will do, and they bunch up together in these lowland and meadow areas. They’re more widely dispersed than that, and it does mean a change in how you’re hunting elk.

Most of the hunters I’ve talked with are convinced the wolf has affected the elk herds. Elk are wilder; they certainly are probably more alert. They don’t tend to go to sleep out in these open meadows any more, because they’re on alert now. They don’t have these safe pockets that they used to before wolves were back, but that is a very natural part of elk behavior. I think in some ways it is really helpful for the elk overall, because you’re not going to see so much of a threat of things like chronic wasting disease and other kinds of things that spreads when you get these animals really compacted together.

Plus you see the ecosystem becoming more healthy, and in fact we actually have more elk here now, in the state, then we did before wolves were reintroduced. So, it hasn’t been like the elk population itself has dropped. So, they’re certainly not endangered.

Is there anything that has surprised you about people’s response to having wolves back in large numbers in Idaho?
I think the most surprising thing about the restoration of wolves is the people’s reaction to it, and it’s really on both sides. You see people that are so fearful of wolves that they won’t take their lamas and their horses into the back country now because they’re afraid of wolves, even though they’ve been taking those same animals in the back country when we have mountain lions and bears and others that are actually more threatening to livestock, and certainly more threatening to people.

They have an incredible ripple effect in their ecosystem and I think a lot of biologists are calling them now the “bioengineer of ecosystems.” >

So, people have this inability to assess risk of knowing what this animal is like. And this mystique with the big, bad wolf, I think really has sunk so deeply into our generation that we really don’t know what it’s like living with wolves again and can’t really assess that risk in a way that is logical.

And then you have the other side where people think that they’ll do no wrong, and that they’re just big dogs. And they’re not big dogs; they’re wild animals, they don’t deserve to be pets. You know, you don’t want to put them in people’s backyards. They’re just as wild as a mountain lion or a bear and unfortunately it’s that knowledge of them and really becoming familiar with the animal that I think is going to take several generations.

Tell me about Defenders of Wildlife’s legal battles with wolf reintroduction and delisting.
The judge actually threw out the delisting rule last year. And rather than working with the stakeholders, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just came back out with the same rule. They just carved out the state of Wyoming, which actually makes it even more complicated, because it’s more of a violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Two wolves in the grass

We want to see the states take over wolf management, but under a good wolf-delisting plan that guarantees the long-term recovery and sustainability of wolves in the region. We don’t want to see the population decimated after federal protections are lifted.

We have about, somewhere close to about 2,000 wolves in the region right now, and that’s in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. And if you look at the original recovery goals -- 10 breeding pairs in each of the three recovery areas for three consecutive years -- we didn’t reach that mark until 2005 when we had 1,500 wolves in the region. And so we want to see that there’s going to be an integrated healthy wolf population here, and I think that if you look just at the science, we need close to what we have right now in order to sustain that number long term.

If you compare it with other species, we have, for example, just in Idaho, we have 20,000 black bears. We have three to four thousand mountain lions, 50,000 coyotes, well over a hundred thousand elk now. You don’t manage an animal at such a low number, or else you risk losing that animal again. And under the current delisting plan, the states can kill all but 150 wolves per state. So we could end up with less than 500 wolves in the whole region. And that would be the number that they could be managed to. We think that’s just too extreme, and it needs to be managed at a higher number and that the states should then have authority to manage the wolves, but under a good delisting plan.

Politically, what’s your take on how wolf recovery has been handled?
There’s been a lot of missteps by our political leaders, particularly our governor who, you know, came out shortly after he was elected and was part of an anti-wolf rally at the statehouse. He told the people that were there that he wanted to kill all but 100 wolves, and that he wanted to get a ticket to shoot the first wolf himself.

Under the current delisting plan, the states can kill all but 150 wolves per state. So we could end up with less than 500 wolves in the whole region. We think that’s just too extreme.

You know, as an Idahoan, that’s just devastating to hear anyone talk about managing any wildlife like that. It’s persecution; it’s not management. And it’s the politics that have gotten involved. You see it at the state legislative level. You see it in the rhetoric out of the different organizations involved. There’s so much misinformation going on that people are not making decisions based on the facts; they’re making it based on just their own perception.

So is there a scenario in which Defenders of Wildlife could accept the concept of a hunt for wolves?
Yeah, it’s one of the biggest misconceptions that we have to deal with, is that we are an animal rights organization, and we’re not. You know, we have a very science-based agenda. Overall, we see managing wolves as part of managing all kinds of wildlife, just as we would recommend for elk, for deer, for mountain lions and bears. Just, we want to make sure that the population is healthy enough in the long term that it can be sustained at the numbers that we do other species.

But because we’ve been involved in litigation, it’s hard for people to understand that we do support delisting, but under the conditions that would allow the wolf population to remain safe over the long term and not have to go back and see this population crash and try to have to recover it again.

One of the first things that we did when Secretary Salazar came into office was to send him a letter saying that we wanted to reach out to the other stakeholders. That there needed to be conflict resolution here in the region over this issue, and that we thought bringing the ranching community, the hunters together, along with the conservationists, that we could work with the agencies to develop a good solid science-based wolf management plan for delisting. And that request was completely ignored.

Is there now a split between Fish and Game and some conservation organizations that used to support Fish and Game?
Yeah, with Idaho Fish and Game, they have been under, really, the control of the Idaho State Legislature; and so they don’t have the freedom to act as I think they would if they were managing most other species.

One of the first things that happened when I came on board in the 1980s was that the Idaho State Legislature prevented Idaho Fish and Game from getting involved in wolf management at all. They just said that you will not do anything that would help assist in the recovery of wolves. And so that was a real roadblock, I think, for the Idaho Fish and Game department.

But the state legislature, and that was at the behest of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, just said no way, you’re completely cut out of this. So we didn’t really work with Idaho Fish and Game for a number of years, until much more recently. When Idaho Fish and Game did start getting involved, it was with the Idaho wolf management planning process that was overseen by the Idaho State Legislature. And that was probably one of our most challenging things because we tried to participate in that. In fact, they went through 17, almost 18 different drafts of that plan, but wolf conservationists were never allowed to be part of the planning committee for that.

You had the Wool Growers, the Cattleman’s Association, the hunters and the independent miners that were sitting on that group. They didn’t allow us to participate, and they certainly didn’t allow the Nez Perce tribe, who was managing the wolves, to participate. In fact, one of the meetings I raised my hand because I used to attend all of them, just to say this is not going to work. This is a very one-sided plan. It’s a control plan and not a wolf conservation plan, which is what we need for this state. I asked, “who’s representing wolves on this committee?” and the gentleman from the Idaho Cattleman’s Association raised his hand and said, “That would be me.” You know, there was just no willingness to bring all the stakeholders involved.

Do you believe Fish and Game can actually manage wolves?
I think if Fish and Game were more autonomous, that they would have a better chance. But that’s why this delisting rule is so important, because if the delisting rule says that you can kill all but 150 wolves, our state legislature is on record saying that they want all the wolves from our state removed by any means necessary. That’s the official position. It’s still at the preface of the Idaho wolf management plan. So I don’t think that Fish and Game can ignore our state legislature. I think they’re going to be directed by them, and 150 wolves is too few. It’s not a sustainable number.

In Yellowstone, we’ve seen over the last two years that there has been a parvo outbreak, and we’ve lost most of our pups that have been born over the couple years, and because of that you’ve seen a real decline in the wolf population there. We went from, I think we had 13 packs of wolves in the park, and now we have five or six that have had pups this year that have survived. So, you’ve seen a real decline in that population there.

Could there be unintended consequences with a wolf hunt?
Right now Idaho Fish and Game plans to kill all but about 518 to 700 wolves starting this fall. If they go for the lower number, that’s about half of our wolf population and they’re looking at starting that hunt on September 1, when pups are about four and a half to five months old. These guys can’t survive on their own.

So, there’s that consideration that we’re concerned about; but beyond that, if hunters take animals that give the stability to the pack like the alpha female, we’ve seen in the past that when those animals have been killed, the whole pack will break apart and disperse out.

Dispersers are more likely to get involved in livestock depredations because they have a harder time hunting on their own, especially the younger ones. And so we’ve seen a real spiral over the conflict then, when the pack starts breaking apart. That could actually cause more livestock depredations, and as a result of that we’ll probably see more pressure then to kill more wolves.

So, hunting a social animal like wolves has to be done very differently than hunting bears or mountain lions, which are very independent animals. So you know, that’s one of the big concerns: is hunting actually going to lead to more conflicts? So we’ve asked Idaho Fish and Game to please proceed cautiously with this, that we don’t want to see livestock problems escalate as a result of hunting.

How could you have a hunt and avoid that problem? I’m not sure you can.
There’s some places where they do hunt wolves. Alaska is one. But you’re talking about an area where you have a very high concentration of wolves. There’s somewhere over 5,000 wolves there. Minnesota is considering a wolf hunt after delisting, but they have 3,000 wolves in the state, and so they’ll probably look at areas where there’s not a lot of livestock and focus on those particular areas, like Alaska, where you don’t have a ton of livestock right there.

Wolves can absorb some hunting pressure, certainly. They do it in Canada and Alberta, British Columbia and other places. But they tend not to do it in areas where there’s not a lot of livestock. So going forward in an area where you have a heavy concentration of livestock is really going to be a new thing in terms of North American wolf hunting, and that’s why we’re asking to please go forward with caution because there’s certainly areas where we think it’s going to be inappropriate to be hunting wolves.

So, what’s the ideal situation for Idaho, in your estimation?
Ideally, I think we need a lot more public education and information about wolves and really do some conflict litigation. Work on solutions together. Get everybody invested in those solutions so that it’s a transparent process of what’s going on and why.

And I think you’d see a lot more support from both sides if they were really part of the process and also trusted the information that they were getting both from the state and the federal government, because they were initially involved in it.

Beyond that, I think we need a science-based wolf management plan that addresses how we maintain this population over the long term, so that it doesn’t become threatened again. That states are working together to achieve connectivity between the different subpopulations of wolves, and that they’re working together on the same things, like these non-lethal tools that help reduce livestock losses or help people avoid losses.

You know, wolves account for less than one percent of livestock losses, and I doubt very seriously that most people know that. I think our public probably thinks that wolves are one of the biggest threats to livestock out there, and that’s not true. Yet we make a lot of decisions based on that assumption, that wolves are such a heavy threat and they’re not.

What would it take for you and others like you to have confidence in the Fish and Game Department’s ability to manage wolves?
We need a good federal delisting plan. One that sets the parameter at what is the minimum number of wolves that would guarantee healthy population of wolves long term. And then have the states’ plans reflect those goals.

Right now, the plan that we have allows too many wolves to be killed. It allows the population to be crippled in ways of being torn apart, so that they’re not connected with each other. We know genetically that that’s a long-term failure if you don’t have some kind of genetic reproduction going on.

We just need to have a more sensible plan in place and then have the parameters there so that the state governments cannot just go on a whim and start killing hundreds of wolves.