Wolves can’t seem to stay out of the headlines. Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.*
Last Friday, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced its intention to remove the grey wolf (canis lupis) from the Endangered Species List (ESL) come 2014, returning wolf management responsibilities to the states and effectively ending forty years of federal protection for one of the country’s most controversial species.
Grey wolves, once omnipresent in North America, were hunted to the brink of extinction in the continental U.S. by the mid-twentieth century before gaining immunity under the ESL in 1974. Their populations have since rebounded to the point where the government feels the species can fend for itself.
The latest delisting is actually less sweeping than it might first appear. The grey wolves of the Northern Rockies were delisted in 2009 and the Western Great Lakes contingent (far and away the largest population in the lower 48) was delisted in 2011. Minnesota and Wisconsin held public hunts last autumn to reduce their respective wolf populations and Michigan is on track to hold its first wolf harvest on the Upper Peninsula this fall. In practice, then, this latest delisting is an administrative formality that will only have immediate bearing on the roughly forty-six wolves in Oregon and the fifty-one or so in Washington.
The reclassification is by no means assured. The delisting is subject to a ninety-day public comment period and has already drawn sharp criticism from conservation groups who may opt to challenge it in court. Lawsuits delayed previous wolf delisting attempts in 2004, 2007, and 2009.
Over at the Huffington Post, the Center for Biological Diversity program director Noah Greenwald summarizes the opposing view by arguing that the move will short circuit a decades-long effort to restore the wolf after centuries of senseless extermination. “America’s wolves don’t deserve this,” his article’s title reads. Opinion polls over the last forty years generally agree, showing that save for hunters and farmers, a majority of the the U.S. (including this writer!) admire wolves and want to see them succeed.
But realistically speaking, the arguments for keeping wolves under federal protection indefinitely have been problematic for more than a decade. The ESL was never intended to shelter animals forever; every animal that’s added is put on a recovery plan and most never even come close to achieving their target. That’s a bleak statement, but it only underscores the fact that wolf numbers in this country have increased more than tenfold since their nadir in the late 1960s, making them the runaway valedictorians of the class of ’74. That’s a success in anybody’s book and should be celebrated as such.
Greenwald points out that wolves currently occupy just five percent of their historic range. Fair enough — that’s certainly lower than it could be. But while he acknowledges that wolves will never get back to 100%, he doesn’t say how much would be enough to justify full delisting. Ten percent? Fifteen percent? More? The danger here is turning the ESL into a slippery slope, one in which it becomes less of a temporary rehabilitation clinic and more like the Witness Protection Program with a vague and uncertain endgame.
In a separate press release from Friday, Greenwald said that the government’s latest wolf decision was “like kicking a patient out of the hospital when they’re still attached to life support.” I’d tweak that slightly and argue that the state of the modern ESL is more like the triage ward, and as of right now, the wolf no longer needs to occupy a cot. With the recent sequester tightening budgets and stretching manpower even thinner, are conservation advocates really prepared to argue that the newly robust U.S. wolf population deserves more resources than, say, the legitimately endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle or the freshwater mussel?
Sentiment is crucial for getting people to pay attention to a cause, and wolves are a sexy species to tout. But no matter how much progress wolves make, the same objections always seem to remain in some quarters as insinuated by this telling passage from The Economist last December:
Environmental and animal-welfare organisations are leading the fight to keep the wolf protected. They have generous supporters, for whom the wolf is totemic. When Defenders of Wildlife polls its [1 million] members about the species they care about, the wolf always comes out top, according to Jamie Rappaport Clark, its president and a former director of the federal government’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). That makes lobbying for the wolf a priority: “Our members expect a return on their investment.”
Look, my playing devil’s advocate in this post is not to suggest that wolves do not still face legitimate threats from humans or that this issue shouldn’t be monitored closely. In North Carolina, for example, endangered red wolves are being shot by mistake (supposedly) on account of being confused for coyotes. Wisconsin’s 2012 hunt was done hastily and poorly and failed to heed the advice of state biologists. Hatred for the canny predator still burns irrationally hot in Wyoming. If the new delisting stands, Oregon and Washington will certainly have no business hunting their marginal wolf populations anytime soon, especially when the former only recorded twelve confirmed wolf attacks on livestock during 2012, a number so low that it’s virtually negligent. Wolves pose no existential threat.
Critiquing each state’s wolf policies on a specific case-by-case basis is a legitimate endeavor. Frivolously bristling at the federal government for doing its job in the face of overwhelming nationwide wolf recovery evidence is not. It’s hard not to sympathize with an animal that has been wronged so often throughout this country’s history. As an apex predator, the wolf plays an important role in ecological stabilization and belongs in our forests. But it would be a shame for biodiversity and conservation advocates to keep picking redundant battles over a single species in a era when there are scores of others in more dire straits.
*My Raptor Lab cohorts have certainly heard plenty out of me on this now after writing a 10,000 word thesis about wolves this spring. I promise to branch out soon.