When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed in June to take the gray wolf off the endangered species list—while adding a subspecies, the Mexican wolf, in the southwest—the agency found itself caught between the objections of environmentalists and the concerns of ranchers who fear greater losses of livestock. The controversy heated up earlier this month, when the agency excluded several top scientists from an expert panel that would review the plan, apparently because of their views that the wolves need protection.
Now, FWS is hoping for a fresh start. The agency has extended the public comment period on the proposed changes to 28 October, and they will begin a series of public hearings around the country. The first will be held tonight in Washington, D.C. The agency also announced today in a press conference that it will launch a new scientific peer review of the proposals that it says will be truly independent.
Few endangered species arouse passions in the United States like the wolf. It's an amazing comeback story. After more than 2 centuries of persecution, the gray wolf was reduced to a tiny band of survivors in northern Minnesota. But since the species as a whole was added to the endangered species list in 1978, wolves have rebounded in many places and now number more than 5200. (Even more live in Canada.)
The agency has already delisted distinct groups of wolves in the Great Lakes region in 2011, and in the Northern Rocky Mountains in 2012; both populations exceeded recovery targets by an order of magnitude. Smaller packs in Oregon, western Washington, and northern California don't qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act, the agency argues, because they are not separated from larger populations. The service contends that the gray wolf is not at risk of extinction “in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”
Service Director Dan Ashe said that state management plans will ensure that wolves will continue to prosper. Even though wolves remain absent from many states that historically had the predator, Ashe said that bringing them back is not the job of FWS. “The goal is not to recreate the past, but is to protect species from extinction.”
By delisting the remaining gray wolves, the agency can focus its efforts on the southwestern United States, where just 75 Mexican wolves hang on in New Mexico and Arizona. This change is unlikely to mean much new money headed to wolf recovery actions, Ashe admitted. But he pointed to emerging partnership with landowners to protect the species. The Turner Foundation, for example, has put together a coalition of ranchers and family farmers who are trying to learn to work with wolf recovery. Part of the federal effort will be to expand the zone in which wolves are released by several orders of magnitude.
In order to properly vet the science behind the proposed changes to wolf listings, FWS has asked the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) in Santa Barbara, California, to run a peer review. An academic research institute affiliated with the University of California, NCEAS will vet prospective reviewers and select five to six scientists. The process will be led by Steven Courtney, an affiliate of NCEAS with extensive experience in peer review. All scientists, including those that FWS had objected to previously, will be eligible. “We looked at the criticism and agreed with it,” Ashe said. “The service was too close to the selection of the panelists.” This time around, FWS will have no role in the selection of the panelists other than giving NCEAS the scope of work. Assistant Director for Endangered Species Gary Frazer expects the review to be completed before the end of the year.
“People are free to disagree” with the agency's proposal, Ashe said. “We'll certainly hear some of that this evening” at the Washington, D.C., hearing. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a nonprofit group that advocates for greater protection for vulnerable species, said it expected hundreds of people at a rally this afternoon in D.C. “The Fish and Wildlife Service is walking away from recovery even though wolves occupy just a fraction of their former range and face continued persecution,” said Brett Hartl of CBD in a statement. Other hearings are scheduled for later this week in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Sacramento, unless the federal government is shut down.