The gray wolf was nearly wiped out 40 years ago, when it was listed as an endangered species. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed delisting the predator, an action that would lift federal protections on gray wolves across the country, leaving the states to manage them.
Conservationists, however, assert that the move is premature, and is likely to expose gray wolves to threats that would drive down their numbers once more. Noah Greenwald of the Center for Biological Diversity described the move to the Los Angeles Times as one akin to “kicking a patient out of the hospital when they’re still attached to life support.”
The government spent decades trapping, poisoning, and shooting the carnivores, and by 1974 the creatures were floundering across most of the United States. That year, the gray wolf was listed on the Endangered Species Act. Today, 6,100 wolves live in 10 states, and the agency says that the population is stable.
The proposal faces a 90-day public comment period before a final decision is made.
“Taking this step fulfills the commitment we’ve made to the American people—to set biologically sound recovery goals and return wolves to state management when those goals have been met and threats to the species’ future have been addressed,” Dan Ashe, FWS director, told the Associated Press.
The FWS also made it clear that the delisting would not affect the Mexican gray wolf, a struggling subspecies with only 75 individuals that live in Arizona and New Mexico. This subset would retain protections, and the gray wolf’s delisting would in fact free up more funds for the agency to strengthen recovery efforts for the Mexican gray, Ashe said to the Environmental News Service. Other animals awaiting listing, such as the wolverine, could also benefit from newly available funds.
But several conservation groups remain unconvinced. Gray wolves have already been delisted in a piecemeal fashion in Idaho, Montana, some parts of Oregon, Utah, and Washington. These decisions were met with frustration. Removing protections on wolves across the entirety of the Lower 48—which is what the Service’s blanket proposal would do if approved—would leave them under the auspices of the individual states where they roam.
“We believe strongly that the social intolerance to wolves would obligate the Fish and Wildlife Service to give them cover for awhile longer,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, former FWS director and now president of Defenders of Wildlife, told the Los Angeles Times.
Under state control, wolves would be game for hunting, as with any non-protected wildlife that the states manage. Hunting drove down populations between the 1800s and mid-1900s since the wolves were, and in many parts still are, perceived as vermin that threaten livestock. This past winter, hunters legally killed several collared wolves, affecting long-running studies on Yellowstone’s wolves and raising questions about whether some of the animals should be off-limits.
Conservationists’ main argument is that delisting the wolf will cut short its full recovery—something that is marked by its wider spread into other areas like upstate New York, the southern Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, and New England. Lifting federal protections that would allow them to spread to these places puts the wolves “at serious risk for ever achieving natural recovery,” Diane Bentivegna of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition told the AP.
Dan Ashe, however, said to the AP that it’s not necessary for wolves to return to these territories, even if the science suggests that they could be ecologically supported there. “Science is an important part of this decision, but really the key is the policy question of when is a species recovered,” he said. “Does the wolf have to occupy all the habitat that is available to it in order for it to be recovered? Our answer to that question is no.”
In areas where wolves have made a comeback, ecosystems have benefited. Wolves in Yellowstone for instance—where they were reintroduced in the mid-1990s after years of ‘predator control’ delivered a serious population hit—keep elk herds in check, indirectly protecting the riverside habitats that would otherwise be overgrazed by their prey. Wolf hunts also create food for scavengers, and the canids actually help keep herds healthier, since they tend to hunt older or weaker specimens that might slow a herd or spread disease.
Conservationists suggest that weakened protections would have harsh implications for wolves: in just the last few years, 1,600 were shot or trapped in several states where protections were temporarily or permanently lifted, the AP reports.
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said to the Environment News Service, “Now is the time that we should be pressing in to finish the job of wolf recovery, not abandoning wolves to the same kinds of destructive forces that endangered them in the first place. We urge the administration to preserve protections for these amazing animals until the success story is complete.”
If wolves are delisted, and then their numbers fall below a certain threshold, they’d be put back on the list. Of course, given funding shortages, it’s uncertain what kinds of protections they’d receive.
A decision on the delisting is expected to be made within a year. Now is the time to let the government know what you think. Submit your comment here.
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