A Primer – Why We Must Not Use a Political Process to Make Scientific Decisions about Endangered Species like Gray Wolves
How a Species Becomes Delisted Under the Endangered Species Act and Why Legislation is a Hazardous Way to Decide the Fate of Wildlife
The goal of reintroducing an endangered wildlife species is to eventually recover them enough to be delisted, at which point management authority rests with state wildlife agencies. Under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is working towards the eventual delisting of Northern Rockies gray wolves and Great Lakes gray wolves. The process for delisting is based on compiling all the best available scientific research to address and analyze the five listing factors: 1) present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of habitat or range 2) overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes 3) disease or predation 4) inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms, and 5) other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.
A wildlife population reaching a specified goal in a recovery plan does NOT mean that the species is magically delisted. The USFWS has to conduct a thorough comprehensive review of all the available scientific research, commercial data, and state management plans to ensure the viability of the species into the future.
This process gives the greatest assurance that wildlife species will be protected until the best available science and a rigorous analysis of threats to its existence indicate that it is safe to delist it as an endangered or threatened species.
The bills introduced in Congress for the delisting of wolves (regardless of whether the bill refers to the Northern Rockies wolves or includes 10(j) classified wolves) deliberately undermines the Endangered Species Act (ESA) process requiring the best and most comprehensive, objective review of science to determine the delisting of a species. If politicians (who are not qualified biologists) can just pass bills that determine the fate of endangered species, any species of wildlife, especially those less charismatic than wolves, are vulnerable to extinction by political whim. People who care about wildlife should fight hard to stop this political hijacking of the ESA.
How This Applies to Northern Rockies Gray Wolves
Put simply, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service decided to delist Northern Rockies wolves, it ignored the best available science and known threats to delisted wolves. The USFWS delisted in Montana and Idaho, but in Wyoming, Northern Rockies wolves remained protected under the ESA. Because of this, the de-listing was overturned in court. The Judge wrote in his 50-page opinion “Even if the (USFWS) solution is pragmatic, or even practical, it is at heart a political solution that does not comply with the (Endangered Species Act). The Northern Rocky Mountain (wolf Population) must be listed, or delisted, as a distinct population and protected accordingly.”
The removal of wolves from the Endangered Species list gives the states a free pass to kill hundreds of gray wolves, just when Northern Rockies wolves have made good progress toward recovery. Independent biologists agree that 2,000 to 3,000 wolves are needed in the Northern Rockies for a healthy, viable wolf population, but the US Fish and Wildlife’s decision to delist wolves could reduce the number of wolves to nearly 100 animals in each state. In fact, if state wildlife agencies have their way, the Northern Rockies population could end up even lower than that.
What Will Happen to Gray Wolves in the West if Bills in Congress Remove Their Endangered Species Act Protections and the States Manage Them?
Only 50 Mexican gray wolves roam the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in Arizona and New Mexico. These 50 represent the entire world’s wild Mexican wolf population.
Mexican wolves, or lobos, were reintroduced in 1998 with an initial objective of having at least 100 wolves and 18 breeding pairs in the Blue Range by 2006. The lobo population was on a trajectory to meet that objective until the Mexican wolf “Adaptive Management Oversight Committee” (AMOC), led by Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD), and including state and local wildlife officials, rural counties, and livestock industry reps, took unofficial control over the reintroduction program.
In 2005, AMOC developed a policy(1) of killing or permanently removing wolves for depredations. As a result, 55 lobos were killed or removed by wildlife officials from 2005 – 2008, due to conflicts with livestock(2). Individual wolves, families, and entire packs were taken out without regard for their genetic importance or how low the population numbers were. After a legal victory for wolves and intense public pressure led the US Fish and Wildlife Service to end this destructive policy and reassert its management authority in 2009, the Arizona Game and Fish Department continued to push for killing wolves that depredated, and fought new releases of wolves at a time when there were only 27 known wolves in the wilds of Arizona.
In December 2010, the Department sent a letter to Arizona’s congressional delegation expressing support for removing Mexican wolves from Endangered Species Act protections. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has not killed or removed lobos from the wild for depredating since early 2008; if Arizona Game and Fish is given management authority over wolves, the killings and removals will undoubtedly resume.
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish acted as a much more positive influence for wolf recovery under Governor Bill Richardson’s leadership. However, New Mexico’s new Governor, Susana Martinez, is not expected to be as lobo-friendly as Governor Richardson, and two of the New Mexico Game Commission’s wolf-friendliest Commissioners are no longer on the commission.
Delisting the Northern Rockies gray wolf primarily affects three western states: Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. While each state has a different approach to managing wolves, they all want to implement extreme and lethal management.
Idaho’s Governor announced his intention to reduce the state’s wolf population to just 100 wolves, which means more than 600 wolves could be killed. Idaho’s official position on wolves is that there should be zero wolves in the state. Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) even declared at a statehouse rally: “I’m prepared to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself.” Idaho's current state wolf management plan would allow for more than half of the state's wolves to be killed within a year of delisting (3).
Prior to delisting, Wyoming said it would kill half of its wolf population and manage wolves at minimum levels. Wyoming’s wolf management plan classifies wolves as “trophy game” animals in a small area around Yellowstone National Park, and “predatory animals” in 88 percent of the state. In the predator zone, wolves can be shot, trapped, poisoned, killed on sight by anyone, anywhere, anytime using any means (4). Wyoming also plans to use aerial gunning to slaughter wolves, threatening the future of Yellowstone area wolves and the long-term genetic health of the entire Northern Rockies population.
While Montana’s wolf management plan is more moderate than Idaho’s and Wyoming’s, the plan is extremely vague and would allow Montana to manage wolves down to minimum levels after delisting. It continues to place a heavy emphasis on lethal control of “problem wolves” in lieu of proactive, non-lethal, wolf-livestock conflict avoidance measures. And state wildlife officials have already set a wolf hunting season (5).
What you can do:
Letters to the editor are needed now.
Surveys show that the letters page is one of the most closely read parts of the paper. It's also the page policy-makers look to as a barometer of public opinion. If you mention your state’s Game and Fish and/or your Senators in your letter, the agency or Senator’s staff will most likely see that letter during a regular scan of the media.
Mexican wolves are worth writing 150 words to save.
Please write a letter to the editor today and ask everyone you know to do the same. Everything you need is here.
1 Standard Operating Procedure 13.0
2 Mexican Wolf Blue Range Reintroduction Project Statistics current to January 2009
3 Idaho Wolf Population Management Plan 2008-2012
4 Wyoming Gray Wolf Management Plan
5 Montana Wolf Conservation and Management Plan