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Wolves Lose Out to Politics, Removed from Endangered Species List

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

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gray wolfIn an abbreviated, terse press conference on Wednesday Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) will propose removing gray wolves (Canis lupus) from the endangered species list in the northern Rockies and the western Great Lakes.

Last month, lawmakers in Congress added riders to the annual budget bill to remove wolves in the Rockies from the Endangered Species Act, circumventing scientific evidence and advice in the process. The action by Congress and the proposal from Salazar supersedes federal court rulings granting greater levels of protections to the wolves.

The proposal would not remove protections from wolves in Wyoming, which the FWS has previously ruled does not have an acceptable wolf management plan in place.

“Like other iconic species such as the whooping crane, the brown pelican, and the bald eagle, the recovery of the gray wolf is another success story of the Endangered Species Act,” Salazar said during the press conference. “The gray wolf’s biological recovery reflects years of work by scientists, wildlife managers, and our state, tribal, and stakeholder partners to bring wolf populations back to healthy levels.”

Not everyone agrees that wolves are recovered. “The feds are declaring victory, but gray wolves still only survive in 5 percent of their former range, and even in those places they continue to face a real threat of persecution,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a prepared statement. “Taking protection away from them now is premature and will impede the long-term recovery of wolves in the United States.”

Others say the political move undermines science and the Endangered Species Act. “While today’s announcement comes as no surprise, the action taken by Congress and the Obama administration last month to strip federal protections for wolves was unwarranted and extremely disappointing,” Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen said in a statement. “It has undermined our nation’s commitment to good stewardship and sets a terrible precedent for side-stepping America’s bedrock environmental laws whenever it’s politically convenient to do so.”

The proposal to delist wolves in the Great Lakes region (encompassing Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and adjoining states) was not part of the recent budget rider. FWS acting director Rowan Gould said, “Gray wolves in the western Great Lakes are recovered and no longer warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.”

Almost all of the states where wolves would be delisted have been waiting for wolves to leave the ESA so they could reinstate wolf hunting; they now plan to cull wolf populations by as much as half. This week, Montana proposed a fall hunting season which would allow for 220 wolves to be shot, the highest amount ever.

Also unexpected was a proposal to remove the gray wolf from the ESA in 29 eastern states, based on new evidence that they never lived there. The wolves found in much of Canada and the eastern U.S. are actually eastern wolves (Canis lycaon), which were previously listed as a subspecies of the gray wolf but which new evidence suggests is a separate species.

FWS will initiate status reviews of the eastern wolf and the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) to determine their long-term need for protection.

Throughout the press conference, Salazar referred to the long line of lawsuits that have moved wolves on and off the ESA in the past several years, calling them “unacceptable gridlock, acrimony and dispute.”

The full proposal will be published Thursday in the Federal Register. Public comments will be accepted on the Great Lakes delisting, but the northern Rockies ruling will be considered final and take effect immediately.

Photo: Gray wolf by Francis Danforth via Flickr under Creative Commons license

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  1. 1. ssm1959 4:44 pm 05/5/2011

    First let me say that I love having wolves around. I grew up in wisconsin where they have always been present. Now I live 2 hours from Yellowstone with radiating wolf packs with in a few miles of my home. It is also long overdue for the delisting of this species. Not as much for the species but for the survival of the endangered species act itself. The yellowstone introduction was a classic case of rapidly expanding goals that ran far from the programs original intent. As such many people who suported the idea were soured by the abuse of power exercised under the guise of the reintroduction. This has resulted in a loss of support for such measusres in the future.
    The public would love to see a case were the goals of a project were agreed upon, acheived and then the program deconstructed having attained the agreed upon goal. Such was not the case with the wolves in Yellowstone. Intentional undercounting and non-reporting was rampant. Once the real population size could no longer be hidden, it was off to the courts to change the goals of the program. Once changed, land use practices far beyond the park were put under scrutiny because of their conflict with the new goals.
    Villify those who argued against the introduction all you want, but their concerns ring true: "wolves will be an excuse to force land use change that would not be acceptable on its own." Exploiting the provisions of the endangered species act in such a way will guarantee a counter response the will greatly diminish if not destroy it.

    The usurpation of the programs by thoses with agendas that range far form the original intent compromise the

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  2. 2. NoSuchThing 4:45 pm 05/5/2011

    Hooray! Hopefully there will be a hunting season on Timber Wolves very soon too :) I will be first in line for a wolf tag!

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  3. 3. jonbig 6:18 pm 05/5/2011

    Your headline itself is playing politics, not science. There is *no* scientific basis for encoding any particular threshold into law to label a species as "endangered". The action is based on political and/or economic reasons *only*, and so is the decision to delist any previous listed endangered species. By complaining that "wolves lose out to politics" you imply wrongly that there is a scientific answer.

    Scientific American does itself no service by pretending that an inherently political argument is a scientific argument instead.

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  4. 4. mstark85 5:25 pm 05/11/2011

    1,651 wolves is hardly a “recovered” population. Wolves occupy less than five percent of their original territory. Minnesota has more than 3,000 gray wolves alone and is a much smaller area than the large western states in question here.

    Worse, Montana and Idaho are all set to launch into wolf hunting seasons in addition to the usual WS predator control, so this number will dwindle quickly. I know Butch Otter was no more than 150 wolves in Idaho, period. Where’s the science in that?

    Wolves and other predators do not need to be managed since they are more or less self-regulating by prey availability and social interactions. The only reason one has to “manage” wolves is because state wildlife agencies want to sell more hunting licenses. (I will grant there may be rare instances where lethal action is necessary if an animal may have become habituated to people and poses a safety concern.)

    Indiscriminate hunting disrupts social relationships – killing alphas and removing whole packs – and it actually exacerbate the conflicts between wolves and humans. Arbitrary removal of animals skews the local population towards younger animals that are less skilled as hunters and more likely to attack “easy” prey like livestock.

    What’s more, if you listen to any hunter, you hear that wolves are decimating elk herds. In areas like the Lolo region, elk herds were on the decline before wolves resettled the area.

    The elephant in the room that no one will address is that the real threat to hunting is from the habitat loss. Oil drilling, natural gas pipelines, logging, mining, livestock grazing, ATVs, sprawl and all other development that degrades natural landscapes on a daily basis affects wildlife too.

    Predator control is not exact, and not based in science. The idea that shooting some wolves will automatically bolster prey population is specious. The killing of wolves is at best arbitrary, in the middle ground a mistaken solution and at worst, a deliberate government attempt to cater to special interest groups.

    I, and other wolf advocates, want acceptable, rational, and scientifically sound management of wolves. The states are not prepared to give them that respect and wolf advocates should not be afraid to say it.

    Let’s be honest. This is politics, pure and simple, and the headline is right: science and the wolves lose.

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