Feds Plan to End Endangered Species Protection for Grey Wolves Across the US

Conservationists say delisting could push apex predator species back to the brink of extinction

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has drafted a plan to remove federal protection for grey wolves across most of the country — a move that would be a grave setback to nearly two decades of efforts to restore wolf populations in the United States.

grey wolf Photo by courtesy USFWSProtection under the Endangered Species Act and the reintroduction of wolves in the northern
Rockies helped the wolf populations rebound in some parts of the country, but conservationists
say the species hasn’t completely rebounded yet.

Earlier this month, in an effort to reach a compromise on the federal budget, House and Senate legislators added a bipartisan proposal to remove Endangered Species Act protection for grey wolves in most of the lower 48 states. The only exception, reports the LA Times, is a small cluster of about 75 Mexican grey wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. If passed, it would mean individual states would have to manage their wolf populations.

Environmental and wildlife conservation groups are dismayed, but not totally surprised, by the proposal. “There seems to be an all out war on carnivores in the last few years,” says Sharon Negri, director of Wild Futures, an Earth Island Institute project that works on carnivore and ecosystem protection. Negri, who’s been working with conservation groups across the country since the 1980s, says the proposal has more to do with politics than sound wildlife management. She says environmentalists haven’t yet managed to penetrate the “iron triangle” — a nexus of state and federal wildlife management agencies, state fish and game commissions, and hunters and anglers. “It doesn’t allow for a democratic decision-making process; our point of view is not considered,” she says.

In some ways the USFWS proposal seems an extension of the Congress’ February 2011 delisting of grey wolves in the northern Rockies from the Endangered Species Act protection, leading to renewed wolf hunts in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming even before the species had completely rebounded. (Read, “Cry, Wolf,” our Summer 2011 story on the politics behind the delisting.)

Before the 2011 delisting, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s reintroduction of wolves to the northern Rockies in the mid-1990s appeared to be one of the greatest conservation successes in the country.  A key predator species, wolves once roamed freely throughout the United States. But by the early twentieth century, as human populations extended into farther into the American wilderness, they were hunted nearly to extinction — largely because they posed a threat to ranchers’ livestock. By the 1960s, when wolves finally received some federal protection, they had become ecologically extinct, meaning they were no longer playing a role in maintaining the ecosystem. Only a small population survived in Minnesota and Isle Royale National Park.

Protection under the Endangered Species Act and the reintroduction of wolves in the northern Rockies helped the wolf populations rebound in some parts of the country. In 2011, before the government gave in to pressure from the hunters and ranchers declared open season on them, there were an estimated 6,000 wolves in the Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes region combined. Since the hunts, the wolf population has declined an estimated 7 percent.

map of wolf habitatImage courtesy Center for Biological DiversityUS grey wolf habitat. Wolves now inhabit only 5 percent of their historical range.

Conservationists and wildlife biologists say wolves need contiguous populations for genetic sustainability, and this premature delisting could again push them back to the brink of extinction. “The job of recovery is far from done,” says Noah Greenwald, an ecologist and endangered species director at  the Center for Biological Diversity, pointing to a map existing grey wolf populations in the US compiled by scientits. “Unlike for other species listed under the Endangered Species Act, such as the bald eagle, there has never been a national recovery plan for the grey wolf, and now they are basically walking away from what little’s been done. From our perspective, this is a violation of the spirit of the Endangered Species Act.”

“It’s incredibly disappointing that [the feds] are giving up on the larger vision of wolf recovery in the United States,” says Doug Honnold, a senior attorney with environmental law firm, Earthjustice.

Earthjustice is currently talking with its key clients, the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, about mounting a legal challenge to the proposal if it’s passed. According to an Associated Press report, USWFS officials said on Friday (April 26) that the rule was under internal review and would be subject to public comment before a final decision is made.

“The latest we’ve heard is that may be two months before the proposal is officially released,” says Honnold, who believes the proposal is will most likely be passed. “I fully expect the Fish and Wildlife Service to, no pun intended, stick to its guns,” he says. 

Honnold, who has worked on scores of lawsuits to protect grey wolves in the US for about two decades, says if federal protection for the wolves were removed, it would mean starting the fight to protect them all over again. “It does have a Groundhog Day aspect to it,” he told me over the phone with a grim laugh. “But we are in it for the long haul.”

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