Wolf Politics and the Endangered Species 'End Run'

Negotiations between the Interior Department and the governors of three western states—Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming—to remove the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf (Canis lupus) from the federal endangered species list hit a stumbling block this week but aren't necessarily over. Idaho's Governor C. L. "Butch" Otter has stated on his Web site that his state will continue "to focus on a path forward on delisting—whether that is through Congress or via the courts." And Wyoming's Governor David Freudenthal said the discussions will help the three states develop a "road map" to get the wolves off the list, which would allow them to be managed by the states' wildlife agencies, and hunted.

Indeed, bills to accomplish the same thing are stacking up in congressional committees as fast as fur pelts in a 19th century wolf bounty hunter's cabin. Most would declare that the region's wolf population, which currently numbers 1700, has recovered and no longer needs federal protection. But at least one proposal by Utah's Representative Rob Bishop (R), the State Sovereignty Wildlife Management Act, would remove federal protection for wolves in all states, including those where wolves have yet to roam.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has met with the western governors but has not officially embraced any of the bills. However, Salazar's assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, Thomas Strickland, confirmed in a recent press conference that the Obama Administration will continue to seek some type of congressional action to downlist the wolves. Downlisting means that management of the wolves would be turned over to the states' wildlife agencies.

The meetings with Salazar and the various bills suggest that political leaders are seeking an end run around the Endangered Species Act (ESA), say conservationists, who worry that wolf-specific legislation may be attached to a year-end spending bill. "It would set a terrible precedent for the way we manage wildlife and is absolutely unsupportable from a scientific point of view," says Andrew Wetzler of the National Resources Defense Council in Chicago, Illinois. "Making legislative exceptions for particular species would be pernicious," adds Carlos Carroll, a wildlife biologist with the Klamath Center for Conservation Research in Orleans, California, who has modeled the restored wolf populations in the three states.

"There do need to be discussions about what population level the wolves need to reach to be fully recovered," Carroll says. "But this needs to be done with the best science possible, not with legislation."

Other scientists say that the 1700 wolves easily could be decimated. "In 1903, [U.S.] hunters shot 4000 wolves," notes Bradley Bergstrom, a vertebrate ecologist at Valdosta State University in Georgia. "Those 1700 wolves could disappear overnight" if they're not protected.

But Daniel MacNulty, a wildlife biologist at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, counters that the politicians' efforts "indicate that the ESA is not working as intended." He notes that the wolf population has surpassed the federal government's original goal of 300, "yet the population remains on the Endangered Species List to the detriment of other imperiled species that are in far greater need of conservation attention."

Wolves were placed on the federal endangered species list in 1974 and were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and a separate area in Idaho in the 1990s. From the beginning, ranchers, farmers, hunters, and politicians in the three states have fought against their return. In 2009, the Interior Department removed the wolves in Idaho and Montana from the protection of ESA. Wolves in Wyoming remained on the list because they were considered to be endangered by a state law that would permit anyone to shoot a wolf on sight. But in August 2010, U.S. Judge Donald Molloy ruled that federal protections for the wolf had to be the same in the three states. His ruling put an end to planned wolf hunts this year in Idaho and Montana.

Posted in Environment