In a move that drew applause from livestock groups and vigorous protestations from environmental activists, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced June 7 that it aims to delist the gray wolf throughout all of the lower 48 states in the coming months.
“Four decades of work by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners to protect and recover the gray wolf have successfully brought the species back from the brink of extinction in the western Great Lakes and northern Rocky Mountains,” said FWS in a press release. “As a result of these successful efforts to ensure that the gray wolf is no longer threatened with extinction as a species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to remove it from the list of threatened and endangered species.”
The agency said that it would maintain protection of the Mexican wolf, a subspecies found in the Southwest.
Delisting the gray wolf would mean that management of the iconic predator would return to the states, allowing state wildlife agencies to tailor management of wolves to address local issues as wolves spread into new territory.
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President and Wyoming rancher Scott George welcomed the proposal, saying that states will be better equipped to address the problem of wolves that prey on livestock.
“It’s time to turn management over to the states,” said George.
“Wolf depredation of livestock is increasing to untenable levels in areas where wolves are still protected. We were given relief in Wyoming when it was finally delisted here. It’s only fair to allow all producers across the country that same relief.”
As of August last year, the gray wolf had been delisted throughout the entire northern Rocky Mountain region and western Great Lakes, but remained on the federal endangered species list everywhere else, notably in western Oregon and Washington, and California. Wolves have penetrated into some of these federally protected areas, especially in Washington, where packs have spread as far west as the town of Wenatchee. Roaming lone wolf OR-7 has spent over a year touring northern California, which also remains federally protected territory.
If the FWS plan is approved, all federal protections for wolves in the lower 48 states would be lifted for the first time since 1973 when the wolf was added to the endangered species list.
A 90-day comment period has opened during which the public can provide input on the proposal. Although livestock organizations and hunting groups have given the plan their enthusiastic backing, environmental groups, some of which have filed lawsuits to reinstate the endangered listing in the Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes, were outraged.
Despite the fact that FWS met its minimum recovery goal for wolves in the Rocky Mountain and Great Lakes regions as far back as 2002, with an estimated 6,100 wolves currently roaming in the contiguous U.S., some environmental activists claimed that the move was premature, and would lead to a rapid decimation of wolf populations by hunting, trapping and more aggressive management by state wildlife authorities.
“This is like kicking a patient out of the hospital when they’re still attached to life support,” argued Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The question of what constitutes species recovery for the wolf is far from reaching a consensus. Wolf activists have long maintained that the wolf cannot be considered truly recovered until it occupies most of its historic range, which covered much of the western, central, and eastern U.S. They claim that with only 5 percent of that area repopulated, wolves cannot properly be considered a recovered species.
“Wolves cling to a sliver of their historic habitat in the lower 48, and now the Obama administration wants to arbitrarily declare victory and move on,” Greenwald said. “By locking wolves out of prime habitat across most this country, this proposal perpetuates the global phenomena of eliminating predators that play hugely important roles in ecosystems.”
FWS has openly rejected this suggestion.
“Can a species be considered “recovered” if it exists in only a portion of its former range, or if significant habitat is yet unoccupied?” queried FWS Director Dan Ashe in his official wolf blog. “Our answer is ‘yes’ and we don’t need to look far for other examples,”
Ashe continued, pointing to the American bison as an instance of a recovered species that now inhabits only a small portion of the vast Plains where they formerly roamed, but is no longer in danger of extirpation. Population stability—not total range repopulation—is enough to remove a listing, FWS maintains.
“The Service’s role in wolf management is limited to the authorities under the ESA [Endangered Species Act], which directs us to ensure that the gray wolf is no longer in danger of extinction,” states the service’s website. “We have done that in the western Great Lakes and the Northern Rockies, and now it is time for us to remove them as a listed species.”
If the FWS delisting isn’t obstructed by litigation, any state will be able to establish a hunting season on wolves, as has already been done by Idaho and Montana where the wolf was delisted last year. However, in Oregon and Washington, wolves remain on the state endangered species list, which prevents hunting and imposes strict limitations on when wolves can be lethally removed, even in cases of livestock depredation.
Last month, the Oregon governor’s office announced a historic settlement between the livestock industry, environmental interests and the state fish and wildlife agency that ended a 19-month-long court-imposed
moratorium on lethally removing wolves that prey on livestock. The settlement, which allows for lethal removal of wolves— but only as a last resort—is expected to be ratified by the state legislature.
The FWS’ decision to move forward on federally delisting the wolf is bound to meet with opposition. In anticipation of the delisting, environmental activist group Protecting Employees Who Protect the Environment filed a federal lawsuit demanding records of the meetings that led up to the delisting decision, claiming that FWS had not complied with a Freedom of Information Act request they submitted last year. Congressman Ral Grijalva, R-AZ, has also come out strongly against delisting, calling the proposal “scientifically flawed” in a May 17 letter addressed to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell.
But it appears that FWS is prepared to stand firmly behind their decision, evidenced by Ashe’s no-nonsense declaration that wolf recovery goals have been admirably met.
“Today, for one reason, and one reason only, we are proposing to remove the gray wolf from the list of threatened and endangered species,” wrote Ashe. “[T]hey are no longer in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.” —Andy Rieber, andyrieber.com, WLJ Correspondent