Endangered Species: Wolf Pact
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Will Congress imperil the wolf again—and the very act that has saved it?
Federal biologists deem the gray wolf recovered. Yet instead of being a success story, its status is mired in controversy. Despite attempts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to return management to states, the wolf remains on the federal endangered species list.
That legal limbo has stirred several members of Congress to take matters into their own hands. With Republicans, who have been generally more hostile to continued endangered species listing for the wolf, winning Senate seats and taking control of the House, there will be even greater legislative resolve to strip the federal protection afforded since 1974.
Northern Rockies and Great Lakes populations now far exceed Endangered Species Act goals. In Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan wolves number about 4,000; about 1,700 inhabit Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. “Biologically the wolves recovered a long time ago in both areas, but the problem has always been technicalities,” says David Mech, USGS Biological Resources Division senior scientist and world-renowned wolf biologist.
For example, the 2009 Federal District Court decision that relisted Great Lakes wolves hinged on the FWS’s failure to hold public hearings. Most recently, the agency delisted Montana’s and Idaho’s wolves but kept federal protection in Wyoming, which has failed to provide a satisfactory management plan. The federal district court in Montana didn’t buy the piecemeal delisting and relisted the wolf in August.
Wolves have always been a polarizing species. “I’m not sure that what’s happening is due to any flaw in the Endangered Species Act,” says Mech. “It’s more a reflection of the controversial nature of the wolf—wolves as evil incarnate, wolves as wilderness symbol.”
Frustration with the on-again, off-again listing led Montana’s Democratic senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester, to discuss with FWS delisting in Montana and Idaho. Even nominally liberal senators, such as Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), have asked the agency to expedite delisting.
Other bills would remove all wolves nationwide from any protection under the ESA. One such bill, introduced by Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) for unanimous consent, failed as the 2010 session ended.
Groups including Defenders of Wildlife, which brought the suit that relisted the western wolf, say Congressional meddling would not only endanger the animal but also weaken the Endangered Species Act by introducing politics into listing decisions.
Others argue that failing to delist a recovered but controversial species will create a dangerous backlash while diverting resources from creatures in greater need. “It really worries me,” says Daniel MacNulty, a University of Minnesota wildlife ecologist who studies Yellowstone’s wolves. “I think species that really are endangered will have more difficulty getting on the list as a consequence of people’s experience with the wolf.”
The federal government spent more than $3.7 million in 2009 on Northern Rockies wolf management—money MacNulty says would be better spent on animals that qualify for protection but aren’t being designated for lack of funds. “I would love to take a half-million dollars allocated to wolves to find out what’s going on with wolverines,” he says. “I’m sure there are other examples with birds and plants, amphibians and reptiles that are equally if not more important in terms of being biologically imperiled.”
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