Gray Wolves Lose Another Fight in Washington

Conservation groups’ effort to compromise with ranchers falls apart before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Gray wolf. (Photo: Ben Queenborough/Getty Images)

Jun 30, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

To the dismay of wildlife advocates who hoped it might mark a new era of compromise between conservation groups and cattle ranchers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has denied a petition to grant fewer protections to the gray wolf in the United States.

Confused about why 22 environmental groups would want to reduce federal protections for one of America’s most iconic species? Don’t feel bad—when it comes to managing wolves, complexity is par for the course. When it comes to gray wolves in America—confusion.

The petition to move wolves from the “endangered” list to the “threatened” list was supposed to be a compromise. Written by the Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity, and other conservation groups, the petition was an attempt to bring back federal oversight for the entire gray wolf population across the contiguous U.S. while lessening restrictions so as to allow ranchers to protect their livestock against “trouble” wolves.

In a short statement, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the groups’ petition “does not present substantial information indicating that reclassification may be warranted.” An FWS representative was not immediately available for comment.

The move would have brought back protections to wolf-unfriendly states such as Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, which have succeeded in removing protections for the species, allowing ranchers and hunters to kill wolves.

In states where wolves continue to receive the full protections of endangered status under the Endangered Species Act, the change to a threatened listing would allow individual states more leeway to control nuisance wolves and handle wolf-livestock conflicts while retaining federal oversight of the species.

Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the petition was the option that made the most sense.

RELATED: Getting Ranchers to Tolerate Wolves—Before It’s Too Late

“The gray wolf is still listed as endangered, even though it has made somewhat of a recovery,” Hartl said. “But it’s not all of the way recovered. The options don’t have to be all or nothing; this was a third option that could have provided more flexibility for wolf management everywhere.”

Wolves have been on the recovery road in the Lower 48 since reintroduction efforts started in the Northern Rockies, Yellowstone, and the Great Lakes region in 1995. Today, there are around 6,000 gray wolves in the wild, but they roam in just 5 percent of their historical range.

“We know we’ll probably never see wolves in Peoria, Illinois, anytime soon, but still, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s job for a wolf recovery is nowhere near complete,” said Ralph Henry, senior attorney at the Humane Society.

So, Why Should You Care? As a species, gray wolves are in a gray area, with some populations receiving full federal protections and others at the mercy of hunters and trappers. It’s estimated that more than a third of the 1,600 wolves thought to be living in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho when those packs lost protections in 2012 have been exterminated.

The real problem, according to Henry, is that while FWS initiated a strong reintroduction program for the gray wolf, it never finalized a comprehensive recovery plan.

“Without set goals of what constitutes a full recovery, ranchers have a fear of the unknown—they don’t know how many more wolves are coming, so they just want all of them gone, and wolf advocates don’t have any idea what constitutes a healthy population, so they just want protections for all of them,” Henry said.