If your employer asked you to complete a very important 50-part project and you came back to her with six parts achieved, would you call that a success?
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service seemingly would, as they are attempting to declare virtually all of the nation’s gray wolves recovered and strip them of Endangered Species Act protections. When wolves were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1974, there was no mention of bringing them back in just a handful of states and then walking away.
Still, that’s just what the FWS is purporting to do. The agency is currently accepting public comments through December 17 on a proposed rule that would remove existing Endangered Species Act protections from virtually all gray wolves in the lower 48 states.
Wolves once roamed much of the continental U.S., but in the late nineteenth century they were driven from their native habitats by westward expansion. Ranchers and the governments that supported them employed sometimes-barbaric methods to kill wolves to free up space for grazing livestock.
As the decades passed, naturalists and conservationists began to see the effects that the removal of keystone species has on landscapes. Ungulate herds became less healthy and vegetation was over-grazed. Even streams in areas once occupied by wolves felt the impact of their disappearance. Where there were once trees giving these waters shade, clearings emerged causing water temperatures to rise.
In the 1990’s an effort was finally made to begin to correct the damage our forefathers had unknowingly done when wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rockies. This was the beginning of one of our nation’s proudest conservation success stories. This amazing story of nature’s ability to right itself if we let it is at real risk of failure if this proposal to abandon wolves becomes a reality.
Wolves are desperately trying to expand, with one recently wandering south from Minnesota, through Iowa, eventually finding his way into Missouri. Once there, he found himself in the sights of a hunter who claims he thought he’d stumbled on a very large coyote and shot him dead. A similar story played out not long after in Kentucky.
And another wolf, named OR-7, or “Journey” by his ardent fan base, was fitted with a radio collar after being born into an Oregon wolf pack. He traveled across the state, into California, and back. His epic trek made him the first wolf in the state of California in nearly a century. But without Endangered Species Act protections, Journey could have been shot, trapped, or even clubbed to death without any legal recourse.
Expansion of wolves depends completely on their ability to have safe passage into new habitats. Removing the very protections that allowed wolves in Yellowstone and the Western Great Lakes to recover would nearly guarantee that wolves never get a foothold in the rest of the nation.
Alarmingly, that may be what the FWS would prefer. The Service’s proposal is clearly not being driven by science—scores of experts in carnivorous species have spoken out opposing this rule. Several were even barred from participation on a federally-mandated peer review for having voiced their concern. The FWS later reversed course and is now reviewing its own review process, but the underlying reality remains—the science does not support walking away from wolves.
Sally Jewel, the current Secretary of the Department of the Interior, the department that houses FWS, has spoken frequently of her desire to see children enjoying our country’s wilderness areas. It’s in these areas, though, that the continued absence of keystone species like wolves is being felt the most. If Secretary Jewell truly wishes to see healthy landscapes for future generations, she will listen to the rising chorus of scientists and hundreds of thousands of wildlife advocates that have urged that she and FWS leave existing Endangered Species Act protections in place.
In short, the FWS needs to finish the job before declaring “mission accomplished” and moving on.