Topic Area: Endangered Species Recovery and the Role of Native Tribes

Geographical Area: Idaho, U.S.A.

Focal Question: How did the role of the Nez Perce tribe affect the implementation and management of Idaho’s gray wolf reintroduction program?


(1) Cheater, Mark., "Wolf Spirit NWF Priority. (Nez Perce Indians saving gray wolves)." National Wildlife (August, 1998): p. NA(1).

(2) Kenworthy, Tom, "Interior’s Recall of Wild: Gray Wolf to be Brought Back to the Rockies." The Washington Post ; May 5, 1994; p. A1.

(3) Nez Perce Wolf Education and Research Center World Wide Web site:

(4) Suagee, Dean B., "The Cultural Heritage of American Indian Tribes and the Preservation of Biological Diversity." Arizona State Law Journal (Summer, 1999): pp. 483-524.

(5) Wilson, Patrick Impero, "Wolves, Politics, and the Nez Perce: Wolf Recovery in Central Idaho and the Role of Native Tribes." Natural Resources Journal (Summer, 1999): pp. 543-564.

Reviewer: Chris Connell, Colby College ‘00


The long debate over the reintroduction of the gray wolf to the northern Rockies is a good example of how transactions costs -- the costs involved in organizing parties on either side of the issue, bringing parties together to bargain, and the actual bargain itself -- can often impede the bargaining process and delay action, especially in the case of environmental problems. In 1978, the federal government listed the wolf as an endangered species in the lower 48 states (except for a population in Minnesota that was classified as threatened). Two years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which is responsible for protecting endangered species, produced a recovery plan for wolves in the Rocky Mountains which included reintroducing several Canadian wolves into Yellowstone and central Idaho. The first group of wolves was finally released into these regions in January 1995, 15 years after the original proposal. Why was the negotiation process over this issue so drawn out?

This debate was divided on many fronts. First and foremost, livestock owners, who had a lot of power with the Idaho legislature, feared that the reintroduced predators would begin taking cattle and sheep. Moreover, under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the livestock owners would be left powerless in controlling the situation as it is illegal to kill an endangered species, even if it is on private land. If wolves were to be reintroduced, they favored reducing their status to a "non-essential experimental" population, thereby giving ranchers greater flexibility in protecting their livestock, and assuring landowners that reintroduction would not disrupt or preclude future management and development options. Many environmentalists claimed that this was a backwards logic. They noted that wolves had been prevalent from Mexico to the Arctic Circle until the late 1800’s, when the U.S. began to systematically destroy what they viewed as a nuisance to livestock owners. Thus, these groups vehemently opposed reducing the status of the wolf, an animal which was once an essential part of the region’s ecosystem and had a right to be there, to "non-essential experimental."

On another level, this debate encompassed the long-running struggle between the federal and state governments for control and direction of public lands policy. The state of Idaho viewed the federal government’s proposed wolf recovery program as an infringement on state sovereignty, especially with the wolf classified as an endangered species, because it would give the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) substantial powers over areas in which the wolves roamed. Thus, while the state legislature could not prevent federal agencies from proceeding with such a program, it did pass legislation in 1988 that expressly prohibited the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) from participation in most wolf recovery efforts, including the expenditure of funds for such activities. This state refusal to participate in the implementation of a wolf recovery program forced the federal government to seek out viable alternatives, effectively giving the Nez Perce the opportunity and the challenge of managing the program at the regional level. In March 1995, following Fish and Wildlife Service approval of the wolf management program proposed by the tribe, the two sides reached a five-year agreement to give the tribe responsibility for tracking and monitoring the wolves, disseminating public information, and carrying out educational activities, with USFWS providing funding and maintaining oversight.

This marks the first time the federal government has contracted an Indian nation to manage the recovery of an endangered species, and it has been successful in two major ways. First, the presence of the Nez Perce has reduced fears on all sides, thus accelerating and simplifying the reintroduction process. Second, the wolves are flourishing under Nez Perce’s management program, which blends traditional wisdom and modern science.

For many, the wolf recovery effort is a symbol of a highly contested shift to ecological values, as expressed by environmentalists, and away from extractive, utilitarian values, as expressed by Idaho land and livestock owners. The involvement of the Nez Perce in the project has allayed fears on both sides because, unlike contemporary industrialists and environmentalists, who have often viewed their positions as mutually exclusive, many natives possess a core set of values that includes both viewpoints. This is true because, historically, natives have felt a close spiritual tie to their land, and to the wolf in particular, while simultaneously realizing that responsible extraction of its natural resources could yield huge economic benefits for the tribe.

All sides seemed to be at least somewhat more comfortable with having the Nez Perce oversee the reintroduction program. Environmentalists felt that they actually cared more about the wolves than the state government, and would therefore do a better job of protecting them. At the same time, livestock owners and the state officials that represented them realized that wolves were going to be reintroduced into the area at any rate, and that, since the Nez Perce were more sensitive to local needs than the federal government, they represented the "lesser of two evils."

This is not to say there have not been problems. Wolves have killed livestock. But in the spirit of compromise that Nez Perce originally brought to the bargaining table, it has been able to appease most ranchers by compensating them for losses through a fund that has been established in conjunction with Defenders of Wildlife, a non-profit group based in Washington, D.C.

In terms of the actual implementation of the program, the Nez Perce have thus far been able to dispel anxieties over whether they would be able to manage the reintroduction as efficiently as the state department. In 1996, the tribe documented the first wolf reproduction in Idaho in sixty years, and as of 1996, the Idaho wolf population has expanded to more than 115 wolves in 12 packs. Of even more interest is the holistic approach it has taken in implementing the program. For instance, when the wolves were first brought to central Idaho, a tribal elder sang a religious song to welcome them. He later said that the wolf had always been a major part of the tribe’s culture, and that the reintroduction had been like "meeting an old friend." Whether or not this attitude helps the wolf recover may be debatable. But the real significance of this attitude, I believe, is that it reflects a quality that is much needed in the face of today’s environmental problems: sincerity. In this case, the western gray wolf should be very thankful for it.