Efforts Underway in Congress to Strip Gray Wolves of Protected Status

Bill to delist wolves from the Endangered Species Act passed by House; similar scheme underway in Senate

There’s a haunting horror near us
That nothing drives away;
Fierce lamping eyes at nightfall,
A crouching shade by day;
There’s a whining at the threshold,
There’s a scratching at the floor.
To work! To work! In Heaven’s name!
The wolf is at the door!

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's poetry reflects the fear and dread Americans still maintain of this canine that has played such a vital role in maintaining a balanced ecosystem. From The Boy Who Cried Wolf to Little Red Riding Hood to the Three Little Pigs, the wolf has always been the villain in Western folklore. And it remains the villain to many ranchers and hunters today — so much so that they succeeded in getting the US House of Representatives to pass a bill removing the wolves' protected status.

photo of  Gray Wolf in Amalik Bay on the Katmai coast
A gray wolf in Amalik Bay on Alaska's Katmai coast. The Manage Our Wolves Act seeks to remove the gray wolf from the US endangered species list, a move that environmentalists say could reverse years of recovery efforts for this apex predator. Photo by D. Kopshever/National Park Service.

Last month, the House passed the so-called “Manage Our Wolves Act” (HR 6784) which seeks to remove the gray wolf from protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) across all of continental United States and turn management over to states — a move that environmentalists say could reverse years of recovery efforts for this apex predator. Largely supported by House Republicans, the bill, which passed by a 196-180 vote on November 16, would also block the delisting from judicial review. To become law, has to now pass the Senate and be approved by the president.

The gray wolf, which had been hunted to near extinction in the US by the mid-1900s, was one of the first animals to get protection against most killing, harassing, and habitat destruction under the 1973 ESA. Its limited revival since then is one of the (partial) success stories of the Act.

The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has been trying to reduce or remove protections for wolves since 2003. Most of these attempts have been  blocked by courts following lawsuits filed by wildlife conservation and environmental groups. As of today, wolves remain protected everywhere except areas in the northern Rockies where  their protections were removed by Congress in 2001 via a rider attached to a must-pass budget bill that stripped ESA protections from wolves in all of Montana and Idaho, the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, and a small portion of northern Utah. (Check out the wolf wars timeline here, and read our deep dive into this controversy, “Cry, Wolf.”) The House bill targets wolves in the rest of the country.

Agency spokesperson Vanessa Kauffman says FWS hasn't taken a position on HR 6784. The bill would not apply in Alaska and Hawaii. Nor does it affect the endangered Mexican gray wolf, which FWS monitors separately. (Read our in-depth report, “Recovery Roadblocks,” about the status of the Mexican gray.)

FWS says that gray wolf populations in the US have recovered enough for it to be removed from the endangered species list. Many lawmakers from states that have strong hunting and ranching lobbies support this argument.

“Rather than spending its limited resources protecting vulnerable species, litigation activists have forced (FWS) to continually defend every action,” chief sponsor of the bill, Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Arkansas, said on the House floor. Another bill supporter, Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, told his House colleagues “we have a lot of extra wolves. We will send them to your district. We will let them eat some of your fancy little dogs and see how long that will go before your constituents demand that you do something about it.”

 Wolf populations have indeed rebounded, from a few hundred in the 1970s to about 6,000 today in Western and Great Lakes states. But the fact is that they still occupy less than 10 percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states. Critics of the bill point out that the House passed it under pressure from ranchers who blame the wolves for eating their livestock and hunters who complain that they have to compete with the wolves for ungulates.

“The reality, of course, is that humans are far more dangerous to wolves that wolves are either to humans or wolves are to livestock,” Rep. Don Beyer, a Democrat from Virginia, commented during the House debate on the bill last month. “Wolves cause less than one percent of all livestock losses in the United States…In fact, domestic dogs cause more cattle losses than wolves do. But no one is talking about trapping or poisoning dogs.”

In Montana, for instance, between 50 and 60 cattle  are lost to wolves annually, and the farmers get reimbursed for the losses anyway, notes Marc Cooke, president of Wolves of the Rockies, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the species. “If this bill passes, you are going to throw the wolves to the wolves. They are not going to make it,” Cooke warns. “I don't believe they are recovered but they are recovered politically and there is a big difference between the two.”

And if farmers fear wolves will eat their livestock, they can take other non-lethal measures to deter the predators, Cooke says. Some ranchers, for instance, will text each other if they see a wolf in the area so they can move the cows to safety. They can also set up electric fences and squawk boxes. Or they can simply walk out in the field, which will scare off a wolf. Unlike what children's literature may make us think, wolves are more scared of people than people are of them and they generally avoid humans. But, as Cooke points out, “It's just easier to shoot and move on” than implement these wildlife coexistence measures.

A wolf population does more than its share to round out a healthy ecosystem. When reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995, the canis lupus helped keep in check the elk population, which had exploded after their apex predator had been virtually eliminated in the area by hunters by the 1930s. The elk were eating too much plant life to sustain the environment for birds and other mammals. The stripping of trees along creeks and rivers, for instance, didn't give beavers enough wood to build dams.  
As deer, elk, and antelope reduced their grazing areas to avoid wolves, aspens and willows began to regenerate. Remains of wolf-killed prey help feed scavenging animals like hawks and coyotes, as do wolf carcasses themselves when the wolves die of natural causes.

“Wolves provide an incredibly valuable resource by helping get rid of the weak [elk and deer]; they help reduce the spread of disease and not having an overabundance of animals,” Cooke says. They also keep prey moving, so no one area gets overgrazed, he adds. But hunters don't like that because it means they have to look harder to find an elk.

Gray wolves need continued protection to expand into other territory where good habitat abounds for them, especially in Colorado, but also in California and Washington State, says Shawn Cantrell, vice president of field conservation programs for Defenders of Wildlife. A few showed up in Colorado between 2004 and 2015 and got killed, he notes. “Wolves have done an amazing job of repopulating in Yellowstone and central Idaho, but the fact is they still have a long way to go,” he says. While an abundant food supply awaits them in their historic range in the eastern US, where the deer population has gotten out of control, the current habitat probably would not support full-fledged wolf colonies, Cantrell says.

And just as the presence or absence of wolves changes the ecosystem, taking them off the endangered species list could have spin-off effects on the management system: If FWS stops protecting them, other government agencies such as the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management might not have to consider wolf habitat when designing timber harvests or awarding grazing permits, Cantrell warns.

How to maintain the gray wolf population at sustainable levels requires scientific thinking, not the whims of Congress, Cantrell says. And if the rather ironically-titled Manage Our Wolves Act passes, it could set dangerous precedents for Congress to remove protection of other endangered species.

Likewise, with removing judicial review of the delisitng. as Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat from Minnesota warned during the House debate — the “legislation removes the ability of the public and the scientific community to participate in the process. Access to a court of law is a cornerstone of American democracy and a fundamental part of our government.”

However, with only days remaining in this year’s “lame duck” congressional session, the fate of HR 6784, which is now with the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, remains unclear. The committee hasn’t acted on it so far, but House Republicans are trying to attach it to a must-pass appropriations bill. Chances are, the bill might expire of natural causes (as is the case with all bills not passed by Congress before its new session begins in January.) In that case, it will have to be reintroduced and passed by the House again in 2019, which might not be as easy with Democrats running the House.

Unfortunately, there’s also a Senate bill that seeks to delist wolves from the endangered species list. Introduced in 2017 by Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming S.1514 or the deceptively named, Hunting Heritage and Environmental Legacy Preservation (HELP) for Wildlife Act, would allow wolves to be trophy hunted using inhumane methods such as cable neck snares, steel-jawed leghold traps, toxic baits, and being chased down by packs of trailing hounds. That bill is yet to be discussed in the Senate, where the Democrats don’t have much sway.
Environmentalists can't take Democrats for granted either, though. While it is true that Democrats tend to be more pro-wildlife than Republicans, they feel the same pressure from powerful farm interests and constituents who don't like wolves. Some voted for the Manage Our Wolves Act. And even in the Senate, several co-sponsored S. 1514, including Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and potential presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.

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