Scientists debate ‘magic number’ of wolves needed for species’ survival

Story fails to note the debate has become merely academic-

Story debates “magic number of wolves needed. By Rob Cheney. Missoulian.

Ok, so some scientists say 5000 wolves are needed to ensure the species’ survival in the Northern Rockies with good genetic diversity. Other say the delisting population of about 1700 was enough.

This article and far too many discussions ignore the plain fact that there are no longer 1700 wolves in the area and it is very unlikely the states will ever allow that number again. 1000 might be tops. It could be as low as 450.  To me, the debate has become academic; and writers and decision makers should acknowledge the fact.






  1. Valerie Bittner Avatar

    Academic?? Are you presuming that the multi-coalition’s challenge to Tester’s rider will fail and the full scientific case on the merits (which, in my opinion, should have been heard in the Fall of 2008 by Molloy had Defenders, et al. not agreed to USFWS’s vacation of the dismally flawed 2008 delisting rule) will never be heard or fail?

  2. JimT Avatar

    If science becomes “academic” then you might as well kiss the ESA goodbye except when it doesn’t inconvenience anyone.

    ANY science; any research on wolves or any ESA species MUST, under the law, be considered with the full intent of the Congress in passing the law….protection of the species, NOT protection of a bunch of whiny corporate public land ranchers. I am so damned sick of the “oh poor me” BS from the ranchers…

    1. Salle Avatar

      I am so damned sick of the “oh poor me” BS from the ranchers…

      I have to agree with you there. I see this as an extension of the “culture of victimhood” that prevails in this country. Most of the laws of this land are written to favor the victim which, in turn, invites those who wish to prevail to see themselves as victims and both sides argue over whom is the victim or has been victimized more than the other. Victimhood is the winning ticket in most disputes and, I feel, that this invites the whining and finger-pointing culture that we see en masse in social circles these days. It seems to be a matter of perspective that now-a-days everyone claims to possess and that the courts should decide… sort of. But also, now-a-days we also see the rise of media-determined cases, since the courts may not serve to resolve such problems. It’s all such a mess anymore that I fear that our democracy is not long for this world given the corruption in our legislative and other governmental bodies. We need a new cultural direction.

    2. Bob Avatar

      What about the “oh poor wolves’ BS and the whiny lawyers and wolf lovers. Then wolves don’t take any money from your wallets do they. If congress passes a ESA great but pass a rider against wolves the world is ending, who’s whiny now JimT.
      If we’re going to look at a wolf population and science then why leave out the Canadian population. Why because it favors your science points. Using your own points wolves know no borders its one population just man made lines so the population is greater than 5000 now. But continue to whine and lie you have the license.

      1. Daniel Berg Avatar
        Daniel Berg


        You may have have stated your position on this blog some time ago, but are you a no wolf guy, or a some wolves guy?

      2. Bob Avatar

        Daniel Berg
        We’ve had wolves for over 16 years here “western MT.” and we”ll have them forever now. Got no problem with wolves just some wolf lovers. I like balance. One population growing at 20% plus means trouble for other populations. Wolves just do what they do but we reintroduced them we don’t have to just let them populate to a peak and crash. The science argument is pure pro-wolf BS. I raise cattle and the non-lethal angle does’t work so the facts for me differ from most here. Fact is wolf cost are more than just what a wolf kills.

      3. Daniel Berg Avatar
        Daniel Berg

        I know a lot of times this argument seems to be divided by extreme “anti-wolf” vs. hardcore “wolf lover”. Even though a lot on this blog strongly disagree with you, and I might disagree with you on some issues, I’m glad you post here from time to time.

        There are a lot of folks who probably come here and read posts who never post themselves, and many of them have little or no direct connection to ranching or ranchers. It’s one thing to see a rancher who is interviewed at an anti-wolf rally, and a very different thing when one is willing to come here and post and absorb a decent amount of flak for their trouble.

        The question in my mind isn’t about whether there should be no human intervention in the population of wolves or only 100 wolves per state, but where in between? I think a lot about that question and I continue to read everything put out by both sides of the issue. I could never have imagined how bitter or complicated issues like the ones discussed here could become before I got into it.

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Valerie and JimT,

    Perhaps I am misunderstood, or used the wrong word. I am trying to say that the number of wolves in the Northern Rockies under state management will be so far from 5000, or even 1700, that the genetic ideal is no longer a practical question — a thing of interest to academics.

    Now, I hope the legal challenge to Tester’s rider is successful, proving myself wrong.

    I think the case is a long shot.

    1. JimT Avatar

      Understand your point now, Ralph. As for the lawsuit, I have to agree since there are a few precedents out there that will be cited by opposition counsel that go against striking Tester down. As I have said, the only thing I can see that is different on the facts is the pending appeals case; in the other two cases, there were none. Be great if the court agreed with our side on this and made any changes to the ESA have to go through an up and down debate and vote.

  4. JB Avatar

    Here’s a different interpretation of Ralph’s original comment:

    The “magic number” is an academic exercise because any estimate of extinction probability is accompanied by a judgment regarding the amount of risk one is willing to tolerate. This judgment cannot be made scientifically–it is inherently political. [As an aside, it is sad to me that the term “academic” has come to connote a lack of practical meaning.]

  5. Jon Way Avatar

    I am confident that history will look back at the Rocky Mountain states & wolf mgmt in a very negative manner. Wolves in the Rockies may be the only species that will ever be deliberately reduced following delisting. It seems that the numbers should be maintained at current numbers if political influences weren’t the determinant to recovery.

    It may even help create a canid protection act, mimicked after the marine mammal protection act and voted over the bunch of whining politicians.

    1. Mandy S Avatar
      Mandy S

      @Jon Way: Great points. Would you view all canines and vulpines as falling under the (hypothetical) protection of your proposed act? If so, I love the idea.

  6. Tom Page Avatar
    Tom Page

    The determinant to recovery is cultural, not political. It’s my belief that if we can keep a few around for one full human generation (20-25 years) under state management, we will start to see more cultural tolerance. Until that time, it is indeed an academic question, using JB’s interpretation of the term.

    One other key factor is land ownership – as more large ranches change hands into conservation ownership, there will be fewer calls to Wildlife Services, and fewer opportunistic kills out the pickup window.

    It’s my opinion that conservation money is better spent on acquiring land, water rights and grazing allotments than on ESA lawsuits.

    Landowners wield great power in the west, even those without political connections. I’m not alone in this belief – at a recent conference Michael Soule indicated that he’s experienced a recent change of heart…I’m paraphrasing here, but his basic idea is that after 30 years he’s lost faith in the ability of the government agencies to responsibly manage land and wildlife – he believes that landowners with large acreages and/or grazing privileges (think Turner in MT, NM, or NE, Vahldiek in CO, or Lava Lake here in Idaho) are the key to maintaining the future integrity of unfragmented landscapes with the full range of species intact.

    1. Larry Thorngren Avatar

      I agree that acquiring land and reducing grazing leases is a better way to spend our money. I would also support taki ng the money from endless and repetitive wildlife studies and using that money to purchase land also.

      1. JB Avatar

        Larry: The money that pays for state land acquisitions and research come from the same pot–a federal excise tax on hunting equipment. In my state, they often spend substantially more on land acquisition then research.

        Here’s an idea: Perhaps we could pass a similar excise tax on photography equipment and then you can lobby to have every one of your dollars spent on habitat acquisition for non-game?

    2. JimT Avatar

      In theory, I agree Tom; the retirement of grazing leases on public lands would be best; buying private ranches would also be an option if you had big money access.

      Michael Soule should have been a lawyer for the past 30 years; he would have come to that conclusion about agencies a LONG time ago…;*). But I don’t believe that some sort of noblesse oblige system is the answer either unless you have fully enforceable forever binding conservations easements attached to titles. We have a better chance, to be honest, to keep putting legal and regulatory pressure on agencies than we have in finding several more Turners out there that will do the right thing by the land and its inhabitants…And Turner is not without controversy…remember the bison controversy of several months ago?

      1. Tom Page Avatar
        Tom Page

        Turner’s just one example… I agree that he’s not without controversy, and I don’t like his “ignore the public, I’ll do it my way” philosophy. But the fact remains that his properties are exponentially better ecologically than the surrounding public lands, entirely because of the efforts of his conservation team. The astounding richness of his ranches also spills over on to adjacent land. This same set of circumstances exists on most of these places… for one more example, look at sage grouse populations on Deseret L & L ground (200,000 contiguous acres owned by the LDS Church), and then compare it to most of the west.

        Thanks for mentioning perpetual conservation easements…I forgot to write that any private land conservation strategy needs that element, however it’s accomplished.

        I don’t think it’s a case of noblesse oblige…Ted likely doesn’t buy properties for that reason (Seeing his personality in action, I suspect he truly doesn’t give a darn what anybody thinks), and neither did The Nature Conservancy when they bought the Baca and the MZ down in the San Luis Valley. Look also at the recent efforts of Hansjorg Wyss – here’s an old European guy giving millions to conservation in the Northern Rockies just because he knows what a special place it is. This doesn’t even count the good ranchers out there, who don’t garner any publicity. There are a few, even if most people on this blog wouldn’t admit it.

        I guess I’m something of an optimist on this, but when I think back over the last 20 years about the times when I’ve felt real hope for the future of conservation, it’s been on private land…not on the irreparably destroyed, cheatgrass covered public wastelands that cover much of southern Idaho.

        And I’m going to disagree with you that our best chance is to keep putting legal and regulatory pressure on the agencies. While this was effective for many years in the 20th century, and still has some utility, I’ve seen diminishing evidence of change on the ground resulting from this strategy, despite the millions pumped into it. It’s why I believe that private land is the key, in addition to the fact that private lands usually have richer resources to start with than the “leftover” public lands.

  7. Phil Avatar

    5,000 wolves may be valid if it were not for the lack of habitat with food sources and natural resources for their food sources and sevles. With the increasing human population in the west I do not see a suitable habitat residing for wolves for a population of 5,000. I have believed that the population had branched over the protection limit, but have always wanted protection to still reign on wolves due to the hostility that comes from high ranking politicians and certain other groups. I do not see this as the case anymore because as I continue to do self research on the size of land base in the NRM region with the low human population and multiple species that can be a source of food, then 1,700 wolves (give or take) is not enough to end protection for them. Minnesota still has nearly 2x more wolves in their state with no where near the amount of food sources then the wolves in the entire NRM region do and are surviving in population just fine. To me, it should have (from day one) been the scientists and biologists who determined the >, = or < population of wolves, deer and elk (along with other species who are affected by wolf presence), with regards to their carrying capacity.

    The anti-wolf hunters and government officials have no credibility on what the population should be, because (in my opinion) their only acceptance of the wolf's population is 0.

  8. John R Avatar
    John R

    Minnesota: The plan establishes a minimum population of 1,600 wolves to ensure the long-term survival of the wolf in Minnesota. The state’s wolf population, estimated at fewer than 750 animals in the 1950s, has grown to the most recent estimate of 2,921. There will be no public hunting or trapping seasons for wolves for at least five years. The endangered species act requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to monitor wolves in Minnesota for five years after delisting to ensure that recovery continues.

  9. Phil Avatar

    John R: And, that should be a suitable plan after delisting the NRM wolves. Although I believe hunting on predators should never occur, but looking at this issue as it is; hunting should not occur until the scientists see how the delisting has affected their overall population. The minimum 1,600 was the established plan just as the 300 or so was in the Northern Rocky Mountain region, but the population of over 3,200 has not hurt the wolves in Minnesota (possibly not yet).

    Off the topic: We have a street here in Michigan named John R (spelling just like your profile name).

  10. mikepost Avatar

    Right or wrong, the wolf recovery plan was sold based upon “academic” numbers that now are still being argued over. This plays into the hands of those who would end the recovery. If the early scientific info was at best incomplete or inconclusive, then the recovery should not have been launched until solid numbers were agreed upon. I am not anti-wolf, but this whole plan seemed shakey from the beginning because the homework was not completed beforehand.

    1. JimT Avatar

      I think the homework was completed to the best of the data’s ability at the time and the political circumstances; remember, the first batch of wolves almost died in their pens because of lawsuits by the states…And I think most wildlife biologists would agree that no matter if it is wolves, or prairie dogs, or ferrets, or hawks…the habitat ecosystem is DYNAMIC; it changes with time and thus the science changes with time. New studies and assessments are logical and needed. It is political sleight of hand for opponents to argue that studies done 15-20 years ago are etched in stone and should forever guide decisions. I can tell you right now that if the original study has said 5000 wolves, the opponents would arguing it is “outdated science’, and new studies are needed to re-evaluate the sustainable population numbers and conclusions. As I said, the upcoming battle of the numbers has to be taken by any court in the context of the overall intent of the law, the plain language of the statute, and its interpretations. I think that deference gives the pro wolf scientists a stronger hand…But then again, it is the West; it is the ranching community power structure.

    2. SEAK Mossback Avatar
      SEAK Mossback

      I agree, in hindsight it makes it look like wolf reintroduction advocates agreed to one thing to just get the the elephant “a little bit pregnant” and then grabbed the goal posts and started running down the field. If the objectives were unreasonably low it would have been much better to have established that beforehand.

      1. JB Avatar

        It is also relevant to recall that sans-reintroduction, there would be no 10(j) “experimental” status, which has allowed considerable “flexibility” in the management of wolves (i.e., killing wolves that kill livestock). Without that experimental status, naturally recolonizing wolves from NW Montana would have received full protection under the ESA.

        Opponents of wolves seem to conveniently forget that “compromise”, which didn’t sit well with many conservationists at the time.

    3. Daniel Berg Avatar
      Daniel Berg

      It’s a tough call. Our knowledge concerning biology continues to develop over time. That definitely opens up biological assertions to attack from opponents. It’s so easy to accuse a person or group of tweaking information as a means to an end. I don’t know what would be an effective strategy to circumvent that type of problem in the future.

      You can make the argument that opponents will always criticize biological assertions unless they validate one of their positions, but there has to be a method to achieve a higher level of buy-in to the process.

  11. Jon Way Avatar

    Just to repeat myself, it would seem to be that the current delisting numbers (1600-1700) would be a good benchmark for population numbers. I think most would settle at that vs. something like 2000-5000. If it is here already, then why not try to maintain that – it is clearly sustainable for this large region. It seems a compromise between not too much (for most people) and not too little.

    To basically halve the populations like the states want to do makes no sense. An agreed upon number would likely settle (or help to) this debate…

    1. Tom Page Avatar
      Tom Page

      Um…Jon, not to burst your bubble or anything, but most people here think 100 is too many…and those hundred better stay in the Salmon River country if they know what’s good for them.

      Of course the ground can sustain over 2000…the whole point of the original post was to illustrate that the biological argument over numbers is totally irrelevant (academic) in the face of social and cultural preferences.

      1. Jon Way Avatar

        I agree but don’t think it is a done deal. Eventually calmer heads will prevail and I really do believe that the populations currently in place will eventually work even if they go down temporary due to social and cultural preferences OF AN “ELITE” MINORITY OF DECISION MAKERS.

      2. SEAK Mossback Avatar
        SEAK Mossback

        It comes back to JB’s point stated above: “The “magic number” is an academic exercise because any estimate of extinction probability is accompanied by a judgment regarding the amount of risk one is willing to tolerate. This judgment cannot be made scientifically–it is inherently political.”

        I am all for using the best science as a tool to reach a number, but it will still come down to a probability distribution of outcomes for each scenario. On one end is the Isle Royale scenario where a few wolves from a very small founding population with very little genetic interchange have been able to hang on for 50 years or more. The odds of them going another 50 seem slim, but some extremists would find those odds entirely acceptable. On the other end, would be where wolves are given only slightly less deference than human life, with their habitat protected and their prey populations managed foremost for their benefit, like the subsistence priority in this state — so they would be able to entirely utilize available habitat and self regulate, ensuring broad interchange of dispersing wolves in all directions. Science might find the odds of extinction very low in that scenario, but some group would find reason for alarm about it.

        I agree that the best hope is wolves will survive the next few years (which I think they will) until the western culture war finds a new cause célèbre and that over time average or “consensus” opinion will move somewhat in their favor so they are not managed everywhere outside of parks with extreme prejudice — but more where there are identifiable, significant conflicts with a human society that no longer views them as a significant threat to children at bus stops or a plot to terminate cherished culture.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan