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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.”

Take Action:
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urging federal government to maintain protections for grey wolves in the lower-48 states.

Maureen Nandini Mitra, Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

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This has to be the most idiotic decision to delist the Grey Wolf as an endangered species.  We just spent a large amount of time, not to mention the millions of dollars that was paid to bring them back to the contiguous 48 states.
  It is a proven scientific fact that these pack animals weed out migratory animals that are weak, and sick to keep up with their own herds, therefore allowing the wolves to help keep the migratory animals keep a healthy heard amongst themselves.  The Grey Wolf plays a vital part in keeping the ecosystem cleaned.  All politicians should reconsider this trapesty, which is totally unfounded, and uncalled for.  Again, there is scientific proof to back this up.  It is not some hypothesis with fear mongers promoting their ideas, and propaganda to the general public.  We are all called to be God’s stewards to protect all living creatures on this earth.  I would urge the politicians to do the research, before listening to those who would love to make these creatures we need, extinct, just like we did the first time around.  What a sin!

By Jameson Dutro on Sun, May 05, 2013 at 4:26 am

This is an outrage.  The reasons to de-list are weak and to say these animals could be pushed back to near extinction is even more ludicrous.  These animals will in fact become extinct. Wolves do not read, they do not understand property lines etc… and most of all, they don’t understand why they can not hunt and roam within their territories (including the lands that humans have moved onto).  They will be hunted down by farmers, ranchers and anyone else whom they offend via property/livestock damage. This is why they were placed on the list to being with.  Hello???

By Tamsen Watson on Thu, May 02, 2013 at 10:23 am

Removing the wolves is the correct decision.  The endangered species act was not meant to protect animals that some feel should not be hunted due to personal opinion.  It is meant to protect animals on the brink of extinction, which the wolves very clearly are NOT on.  Instead of whining about the wolves being taken off the list, people should be celebrating the recovery of the wolf across their range.  I know whenever I look at the alpha male in my living room that I harvested from northern MN last fall, I can smile and think about incredible history of this amazing animal.

By Jim on Thu, May 02, 2013 at 5:57 am

The cost of merely one aircraft or helicopter being bought by the Government could have sustained the programme for a substantial period!! Such are our priorities….

By Ashish Kaul on Wed, May 01, 2013 at 5:41 pm

It continually amazes me how humans destroy everything around them. Anyone with intelligence would only need to look at the map of wolf distribition to grasp the severity of the situation. Anyone who allows the eradication of a species does not deserve to be in a position of power.  If deforestation, pollution, and eradication of wildlife continues at this pace there wont be anything worth governing. Farmers should take responsibility for keeping their livestock safe.  Hunters should be on the other side of the scope for a change. Trappers are the lowest lifeform. Get a life and a proper job. We have evolved past the point of having to clothe ourselves in fur, and yet the caveman mentality still persists.  So - this bill to delist wolves is nothing but a political move. It is a selfish, greed fueled decision.  The word “human” is not correct, “inhumane” is more accurate.

By Rowena Mendes on Tue, April 30, 2013 at 1:18 pm

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