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Gray Wolf Stays 'Endangered' Despite Conservationists' Request

Jul 04, 2015 03:54 PM EDT
gray wolf
(Photo : USFWSmidwest / NPS)

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recently ruled that the North American gray wolf will remain classified as an endangered species despite its speedy recovery across the continent. Strangely enough, many conservationists looking to compromise with angry farmers and state officials are saying that this is not the good news they were hoping to hear.

To be quite honest, when this reporter first came across a petition submitted last January by The Humane Society of the United States (THS) and 22 other animal conservation groups, he was a little confused. The petition calls for Congress and the FWS to strip the grey wolf (Canis lupis) of its status as an endangered species - a status that grants its special protections under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).

Instead, the groups are asking that the recovering species is given the status of "threatened," which would grant it fewer protections, but one's that would be enforced on a national scale. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Steve Jurvetson)

Reclaiming Restrictions

Their reasoning? According to the groups, the wolves' current status has actually been ignored and even overturned in various states like Montana, Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington, leading to little control over how hunters and farmers react to a wolf's presence. In Alaska, where the wolves are at healthy numbers and not listed under the ESA entirely, unchecked hunting has even led to a notable decline in wolf populations that frequent the lands around the protected Denali National Park.

"Several states have badly failed in their management of wolves, and their brand of reckless trapping, trophy hunting, and even hound hunting just has not been supported by the courts or by the American people," Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the THS, said in a past statement.

He added that the Society and its partners do, however, "understand the fears that some ranchers have about wolves."

After all, as things stand, these recovering predators, while having reclaimed a mere five percent of their historic range, are already responsible for nearly one percent of all unexpected livestock deaths across the US (the large majority is still due to disease or coyote raids).

So what's to be done? Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) argues that the fate of farmers and wolves alike is currently too dependent on the whims of state legislature and ignores the 'big picture' of environmental conservation.

"A Congressional end run around science and the Endangered Species Act will create more controversy and put wolves and the law itself in jeopardy," he explained. "The better path is to downlist wolves to threatened, replace the failed piecemeal efforts of the past with a new science-based national recovery strategy, and bring communities together to determine how wolves will be returned to and managed in places where they once lived, like the Adirondacks, southern Rocky Mountains, Cascades and Sierra Nevada." (Scroll to read on...)

grey wolves
(Photo : Flickr: Ronnie Macdonald)

Essentially, the hope was that downlisting the gray wolf would adequately reset protections in some regions, while granting worried farmers and hunters a few more freedoms in others - namely permissions to trap 'problem wolves' and forgiveness for accidental kills.

A Disappointing Denial

Unfortunately, the USFWS recently denied this request, maintaining the endangered status of the gray wolf and all the legislative baggage that comes with it.

According to the Service, there is not enough "substantial information indicating that reclassification may be warranted."

"The Service's review concluded that the petition did not provide information to indicate that the population petitioned for listing, which does not correspond to any currently listed gray wolf population, may qualify as a listable entity under the ESA," they explained. " As a result, the Service will take no further action on the petition."

A USFWS representative was not immediately available for comment. However, Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director at the CBD, claimed in a statement that the FWS' reasoning is contradictory to previous actions.

"The Service's claim that wolves don't constitute a distinct population is ludicrous and totally belied by the fact they've been considered distinct in the lower 48 for more than three decades," he argued. "Sadly the US Fish and Wildlife Service seems content to let politicians in Congress, rather than scientists, decide the future of wolf recovery in the United States - yet another sign this agency is hoping to wash its hands of wolf recovery and leave the job unfinished forever." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Pixabay)

"We are disappointed in the Fish and Wildlife Service's decision not to consider this middle-ground approach to wolf management," Michael Markarian, the chief program and policy officer at THS, added in a formal response. "We need practical solutions, not to turn back the clock to the days of widespread hound hunting, baiting and trapping of hundreds of wolves in states with hostile and reckless wolf management policies."

The Mistake of Moderacy

Still, it's important to note that there is another side to this complex debate. Last December, researchers from Washington State - in a region that has seen a dramatic spike wolf populations - published convincing evidence that taking a "middle-ground" approach might be the worst fate for farmer and wolf alike.

According to 25 years of lethal control data from US Fish and Wildlife Service's Interagency Annual Wolf Reports, wolf control should be an 'all or none' approach. Apparently, the single death of a wolf can lead to a 4 to 6 percent jump in the number of livestock deaths in a region. If 20 wolves or more are killed, livestock deaths double.

The reason for this, wildlife biologist Rob Wielgus explained, is that these deaths destabilize packs, potentially removing wizened pack leaders who would otherwise steer their charges away from human development. Young and reckless wolves then, are more likely to raid farms in regions with moderate lethal control - the kind of control that is permitted under a "threatened" status. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Steve Jurvetson)

Similarly, regions with intense control may be well off, as the study suggests that livestock deaths can finally be halted after 25 percent of wolves in an area or more are killed.

"The only way you're going to completely eliminate livestock depredations is to get rid of all the wolves," Wielgus said, "and society has told us that that's not going to happen."

Instead, the strong disparity that we see today, with some states standing by strict protections and others permitting mass hunts, may actually be the preferable choice. Conservationists may not agree with that assertion, but it's certainly food for thought as they struggle to ensure that grey wolves have a home in the US.

"Complex conservation problems require sophisticated solutions," Adam M. Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA and a backer of the failed petition, added in a statement. "The history of wolf protection in America is riddled with vitriolic conflict and shortsightedness and it is time for a coordinated, forward-thinking approach that focuses on the long-term viability of wolf populations throughout the country."

What that approach could be, however, remains up for debate.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

 - follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS


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