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05/06/2009

Rocky Mountain Wolves Lose Federal Protections

This past Monday, wolves throughout much of the northern Rockies lost their protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Although the gray wolf has rebounded from virtual extinction in the region a mere twenty years ago, wolf populations in the northern Rockies are not yet stable enough to lose these critical protections.  The management of the animals now falls to individual states to implement as they see fit, including hunting and aggressive agency management.  Yet Wyoming was left out of the mix and its wolves remain under federal protection.  The Interior Department recognized that Wyoming's plan, which includes a shoot-on-sight zone in 87 percent of the state and aggressive management techniques elsewhere, is not adequate to ensure that there are at least seven breeding pairs outside of the Yellowstone area.

Gray wolf2
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Unfortunately, the wolves roaming Montana and Idaho no longer have this protection.  The delisting upholds a flawed Bush administration decision made in its last days in office, removing gray wolves in the western Great Lakes and the northern Rocky Mountains from the endangered species list.  A March decision by Secretary of the Interior Salazar upheld this ruling.  Protections for wolves were removed last year and a court found significant problems with the plans to manage wolves in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.  Virtually nothing has changed since then and wolf populations could still be slashed by more than half.

The population of gray wolves in the northern Rockies consists of three relatively isolated sub-populations, rather than one genetically connected group.  There are approximately 1,600 individuals and 100 breeding pairs in the region.  Many scientists maintain that this number is not high enough to ensure long-term population viability.  Instead, to have a sustainable population, wolves need to number between 2,000 and 5,000 individuals in the northern Rockies.  The state management plans tend to slide backwards, rather than allowing wolf populations to grow naturally.  Idaho, for example, plans to allow the number to be reduced to around 100 individuals, down from approximately 900.

The Sierra Club plans to challenge the northern Rocky wolf de listing in court with a coalition of environmental groups led by Earthjustice

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