David Langhorst Interview

David Langhorst was involved in wolf recovery as the executive director of the Wolf Education and Research Center. Later, as a state legislator, he co-sponsored legislation that formally recognized Idaho's wolf management plan. This interview was conducted in the summer of 2009.

David LanghorstWhat role did you play in wolf re-introduction?
Well, when I first became involved in the legislature, I was aware of the fact that Idaho had previously been staunchly against wolf reintroduction and I was wary of the Office of Species Conservation and I thought it was more of a political way of trying to obstruct wolf reintroduction. I came to find out that I was wrong about those concerns, and I feel like the OSC has done a job working with the Feds and putting Idaho in the position of maybe one of the first ever states to partner on delisting like we have.

Shortly after I became a legislator, I worked with Representative Bert Stevens, who is a rancher and a strong advocate for the Farm Bureau, and the two of us worked together to sponsor the bill which finally formally recognized Idaho’s wolf management plan and put wolf management back into the hands of Idahoans, which I saw as a victory. We were headed toward recovery. Since those days, we’ve reached and surpassed recovery, and I believe it’s time to manage wolves.

I mean, people have compared wolves to toxic waste, they’ve tried to pass bills to outlaw wolf recovery. They’ve tried to outlaw any federal agent from bringing wildlife into the state, any effort that they could to try to obfuscate or obstruct wolf recovery.

Which is why the federal government looked to the Nez Perce Indians for help.
Right. The Nez Perce tribe came forward at a time when the state of Idaho was not willing to work with the Feds, and it was the first to my understanding that a Native American tribe had been given the primary responsibility for recovering a species. They’re still involved. They work as partners with the Idaho Fish and Game Department. And that’s another one of the conservation success stories that I think frame the wolf debate.

What exactly did your legislation do for Idaho and this issue?
House Bill 294, in 2003, acknowledged that Idaho was coming to the table and was going to be a partner with the Feds to officially see to it that wolves were recovered, and that we would proceed on to delisting. And I think one of the things that made that politically possible was that a lot of the constituent groups, primarily the ranchers and agricultural groups realized that wolf recovery was going to happen with or without them. And they wanted to be at the table, which makes sense, and proceed with delisting.

To know that there’s a new species around that hasn’t been in the mountains, in the woods, for 50 years is a pretty satisfying feeling.

I mean, it’s a classic case where we as a state, we did have our heads in the sand, and that bill represented Idaho pulling its head out of the sand, and getting to the table.

You had an interest in this issue not only as a legislator, but also as a sportsman.
The hunters that I know, most of them supported wolf recovery, because we hunt because we love wildlife. We love being out there. And when we’re out there, to know that there’s a new species around that hasn’t been in the mountains, in the woods, for 50 years is a pretty satisfying feeling. A lot of us look back in history, 100 years ago, when wildlife management as we know it began, and if it wasn’t for those heroes that did that for us, we wouldn’t have deer and elk. We wouldn’t have this conversation. Wolves could not recover if conservationists, hunter conservationists, had not done that 100 years ago. So to be a part of this conservation success story is very satisfying.

Two wolves playing

You’re not worried that wolves are going to make your job harder as a hunter?
A lot of people complain about how wolves have changed hunting and in my case, I can tell you a bunch of stories about how some of my favorite places now have wolves. And, in a way, what that means is elk and deer equal wolf habitat. And so the wolves are kind of validating that I picked some good hunting spots. And it’s not nearly as easy to go in there nowadays and hear four and five bulls bugling. Their behavior has changed. Elk are dispersed more than they used to be. And I think they’re a little less vocal.

I have heard wolves howl while I was looking through my binoculars at elk, and seen the elk appear not to even notice. But I have also noticed that elk are more dispersed. They seem to be a little warier, and I would admit maybe a little harder to hunt. It still hasn’t kept me from harvesting elk during the bow season, and having lots of close encounters. So, to me, the hunting experience is enhanced. I didn’t become a hunter because I wanted to easily go get meat every year.

So you watched the whole process evolve as they brought the wolves into Idaho.
In the early ‘90s, I was involved in wolf recovery. I always saw myself as kind of in the reasonable middle. I was a hunter, but I was for wolf recovery. And so I found myself arguing with animal rights activists on one hand, and hard core hunters who were opposed to wolf recovery on the other.

We have other species that are struggling. And to go back on our word, those who supported wolf recovery, I think can endanger the potential recovery of salmon or steelhead or other threatened or endangered species.

My own involvement in the wolf recovery effort as the executive director of the Wolf Education and Research Center was twofold. We advocated for the experimental reintroduction, and we also raised money to help pay for the actual movement of the wolves because of some political events that had stopped the funding halfway between moving the wolves from Canada to Idaho and to Yellowstone.

I was there for the first release of four wolves in Idaho. And I saw that as a sigh of relief, not because it was a victory over anyone, but because I saw it as the beginning of the end of this very intractable issue that we’ve been fighting for years.

Seeing the wolves when they were captured, and how docile they were, was interesting. And when we released them, there had been an ice storm, and I don’t know, if you look at some of the footage, you’ll see these guys falling down trying to open up the… and my point in saying that is that it was dramatic to see wolves going, but there were no real events, no snarling, it was just some animals running loose.

One thing I like to point out to folks about wolf recovery is that it was ahead of schedule and under budget. If we had not gone with experimental reintroduction, it would have taken many, many more years for natural re-colonization to occur, and it would have cost a lot more money. And folks that were not happy under the federal control and full listing would be still dealing with that kind of what they would consider to be onerous regulation, whereas now, we’re looking at delisting.

Why were wolves brought in over two years, in 1995 and 1996?
The original plan called for three to five years of translocation, you know, different numbers of wolves in each of those years. Wolves, as we have come to see, are very resilient, and two years of reintroduction was all it took. And we’ve seen wolves breed prolifically. We’ve seen wolves vastly exceed the recovery goals for Idaho.

A closeup of a white wolf's face

So one of the reasons why it’s time that we manage wolves is that they are having impact on the game populations. It was always an implicit part of the experimental reintroduction agreement, good faith on both sides, that management, including hunting, would be a part of the equation.

It does seem to be a question of numbers.
It’s a question of numbers, and as in any scientific question, those who will argue both sides about whether we have the genetic dispersal and interchange between the three states in the recovery area. But one of the things that I like about experimental reintroduction, and paragraph 10J in the Endangered Species Act, is that it allows for a little common sense to be applied. If the recovery goal is 100 and we have over 900, some say 1,000 wolves in Idaho, I think it does verge on breaching faith if we say that that’s not enough now.

Promises were made very clearly in the record that our recovery goal was 100 or 10 packs. That may not be enough, but certainly 1,000 is plenty and I think it’s time to declare victory, manage wolves, de-list them, and move on.

The other concern I have is that we have other species that are struggling. And to go back on our word, those who supported wolf recovery, I think can endanger the potential recovery of, say, salmon or steelhead or other threatened or endangered species; because I think it becomes harder to get folks to come to the table or take your word for it when you’re saying we’ll do this to get this species recovered. That scares me.

I will buy a wolf tag this year. I don’t know if I’ll use it, if I’m faced with a wolf. If I get that close, I’ll feel really happy.

What’s your opinion on a wolf hunt?
To me, hunting is the best way to manage a species, like we do with cougars or bears. And I will buy a wolf tag this year. I don’t know if I’ll use it, if I’m faced with a wolf. If I get that close, I’ll feel really happy. We’ll see what happens at that time. But, hunting is probably the best way that we can manage wolves. Now, I think it’s an open question as to whether hunting will be an effective way to keep the number down. Whether wolves change their behavior after they are hunted, that’s a variable we don’t know. I suspect that if we opened the season on wolves, and had no quota whatsoever, we’d still not come close to harming the wolf population in a biological recovery sense. The targeted number, 220 or so wolves that could happen, I doubt that it will. I doubt that hunters will harvest that many wolves, but we’ll see.

I’ll bet there’ll be a few shot right off the bat. I think that there’ll be some wolves shot and we’ll see news stories about that. And the reason is because they haven’t been hunted. Their presence is well known to local folks, and so on opening day, it will probably be easy for some people to go out with a rifle and shoot a wolf. After that, it’ll be incidental to other hunting that goes on. I think it’s going to be very hard to get a wolf in someone’s sights.

Some doubt this issue will be resolved in a year.
I think that wolves will always be an issue to some folks. There are those who don’t like hunting whatsoever. To them, I would simply remind them that we’ve been harvesting wolves for years now. Again, as a reasonable part of compromise in the experimental reintroduction plan to minimize the impacts on ranchers and livestock operators. But it was also part of the agreement that we would mitigate impacts on wild game herds. And so there will always be some hunters who feel that there are too many wolves and there will always be people who think that wolves should never be hunted.

If I do shoot one, it would be for me, closing a circle. It would be the ultimate degree of success to say that wolves are a normal part of our environment, and we are managing them like we do other species. Good for us. You know, we did it. And if a certain number have to be controlled, it doesn’t matter whether it’s me or somebody else, I suppose, in the big picture if that’s what makes for successful recovery.

So, you’re thinking wolf reintroduction is a success.
I feel that this has been one of the most significant conservation successes in my lifetime. We all celebrated, I think, when eagles were taken off the endangered species list, an American icon. And for a lot of folks, wolves are an icon. Not for me so much, but because what it represents in terms of our ability to solve problems out here in the West where a lot of resource issues are very dichotomized and emotions run high on both sides. That’s what makes it a significant victory to me.