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Wolves dropped from U.S. endangered species list–again

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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gray wolfThis week, gray wolves in the northern Rockies lost their protected status under the Endangered Species Act for the second time in the space of a year. And what a long, strange year it’s been.

There are many factors affecting the decision, of course: farmers want to protect their livestock, hunters want to be able to shoot wolves; people are scared of wolves and other large predators; and contractors want to be able to build in the northern Rockies.

First protected in 1974 when the gray wolf (Canis lupus) bordered on extinction, the northern Rockies population of the species first lost its protected status in March 2008. The logic behind the decision was that wolves had, theoretically, recovered enough that they no longer needed protection. At that time, the states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming started preparing for wolf hunts, the first time such hunts were legal in decades.

Conservationists disagreed with the decision and sued to reinstate the wolf’s endangered status. In June, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy issued a temporary injunction against wolf hunts, but at least 106 wolves had already been shot and killed before it took effect.

Wolves went back on the Endangered Species List—for a little while—in September, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it had decided to withdraw its original decision.

It didn’t last. In late October, the Bush administration once again started moving forward with plans to remove gray wolves in the Rockies from the Endangered Species List. The only difference from the original plan was that wolves would retain their protected status in Wyoming, which, according to the FWS, does not have a wolf management plan or the regulatory framework that meet requirements set by the Endangered Species Act. Wolves in other parts of the country, like Oregon, South Dakota and Michigan, remain protected, as they did under the March 2008 plan.

Flash forward to this week, when the Obama administration followed through on the Bush-era plans and delisted the wolf once again (PDF). Conservation groups, as expected, lined up and announced plans to sue to reinstate that protection.

The big debate here comes over what constitutes a "recovered" population. There are currently, according to FWS, at least 1,645 gray wolves in the northern Rockies, living in 217 packs. According to Andrew Wetzler, Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Endangered Species Project, the recovery goals, set back when wolves first gained ESA protection in 1974, "only require 300 wolves in the tri-state area, or 10 breeding pairs in each state." During an online chat (transcript) on May 7, Wetlzer said the ideal wolf population size to prevent genetic loss is even higher than the current population: 2,000 to 2,500 individuals. Two hundred and twenty-five scientists agree, and this week sent a letter of protest to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, arguing that the current wolf population is too small.

Wolf inbreeding has become a problem in at least one other part of the country. In Michigan, where just two dozen wolves live on islands in Lake Superior, the animals have developed backbone malformations due to a too-small gene pool. It’s way too soon to say if that would happen elsewhere, especially since the Michigan wolves are completely isolated from any other wolves that could join their packs, but this does show that small wolf populations can be vulnerable to genetic weakness, according to a paper in this month’s issue of the journal Biological Conservation. (See a slide show of the wolves—and moose—of Lake Superior’s Isle Royale.)

What happens next? Chances are, we’ll hear about the first new wolf shooting soon. Lawsuits by the NRDC and other groups can start up as early as next month (they are required to file a 60-day notice of their intent to sue). After that, it’s anyone’s guess.

Image: Gray wolf, via Wikipedia

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  1. 1. silvrhairdevil 1:44 pm 05/8/2009

    Any hunter shooting a wolf should be required to eat it.

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  2. 2. Natedog 10:24 am 05/11/2009

    Better yet, they should be required to kill it with their bare hands. Sport hunting is just about the most pathetic pass time a person can have.

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  3. 3. bgt 12:57 am 05/18/2009

    It is obvious that neither of you have seen what wolves are really like in the wild, and just how torturous the death of their prey is. Usually their prey is eaten alive, that is….if you can call it "eaten", it is more like snacked on while alive and then left to die. I too once believed that they were nothing less than efficient hunters that only killed what they would eat. But they in fact are even more of a sport hunter than those you naively talk about. I am sure your sources all consist of pro-wolf enthusiasts who tend to leave out important details that would otherwise taint your love for wolves. You really need to dig a little deeper than the one-sided (and I mean totally biased) research performed by pro-wolf groups.
    Before you get your hackles up, you should know that I am not a sport hunter. Since a couple of states now have control over the management of wolf populations in their area, and they have provided a hunt as a means to control those populations, I support the hunters and their "pass times". You can’t judge hunters (who are doing everything legally) and helping to control the wolf population, by using the standard Walt Disney type of stereotypical beliefs of hunters and their intentions. Since I believe you are true wolf fanatics, you would obviously know that wolves only eat about half of their prey (and that is on a very good day) but then pro-wolf researchers state that there are other birds and scavenger type animals that benefit from the remains. Using this type of a logic, that is meant to make those teetering on the fence between pro-wolf and anti-wolf, feel okay about the "wasted" meat and still hold wolves high on a pedestool, I say it is great that the hunters leave the carcass of the wolf as a source of food for the birds and other scavengers. They really are beneficial to the ecosystem of the areas they hunt in.

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  4. 4. silvrhairdevil 12:16 pm 05/18/2009

    And where, exactly, did you see these wolves torturing their prey? Your post is full of "pity" buzzwords for the poor bambis, but short on proofs of your assertations. Did your hunter buddies tell you this? Shall we kill all the wolves so the poor animals they eat won’t suffer?

    I still maintain that any hunter shooting a wolf should be required to eat it. A real hunter wouldn’t leave the carcase of an elk to rot (or feed the ravens) because it is illegal, wasteful and abhorrant.

    If you are going to shoot it – you should eat it.

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  5. 5. verdai 8:24 pm 05/31/2009

    Any hunter shooting a wolf should be immediately eaten by anything.
    Any man dumb enough not to recognize another sentient being is Damned to the lowest hell.

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  6. 6. Riolu7777 2:57 pm 06/22/2009

    If you are saying there just controlling the population, then think… Wolf-2,500
    humans-6 billion. That’s a huge difference. If anything, the human population should be controlled, and remember, not all 2,500 are in the wild.

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  7. 7. jeb519 9:32 am 08/29/2009

    I don’t understand your logic about killing the wolf it has been proven by Jim Dutcher that the wolf is not a man eater like everyone thinks, take time
    to watch the dicovery channel about wolves at your door. Kinda do me a
    favor and have some grab you by the ears and help you pull your head out
    of your rearin and go back to school and take some science or biology classes and get reeducated

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