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10/01/2013

Speaking Up for Wolves

Wolf rally

On September 30th, the eve of an impending federal government shutdown, furloughs and continuing resolutions weren’t the only concerns in Washington. That afternoon, I attended a rally for wolves outside of the Department of the Interior.  The rally preceded the Fish and Wildlife Service’s hearing on a proposal to remove the Gray Wolf from the endangered species list, a short-sighted decision that could reverse years of recovery efforts.  Speakers included Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Jamie Rappaport Clark, former secretary of the Fish and Wildlife Service and president of Defenders of Wildlife, Debbie Sease, legislative director of the Sierra Club’s national campaign office, and Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition.  Before an enthusiastic crowd—and between collective group howls—the speakers drew attention to the wolves’ unfinished recovery in the lower 48 states, and the ecological and legislative consequences of delisting the creature.

The gray wolf isn’t ready to be taken off the endangered species list.  Former protected species, like the bald eagle and American Alligator, were given ample protection under the Endangered Species Act, and have become inspiring success stories and testaments to the effectiveness of the ESA.  Both animals have come back to inhabit their original ranges.  Gray wolf populations have recovered significantly in Canada and Alaska, and even to some extent in the Western Great Lakes region and Northern Rockies.  But other populations in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest and Southwest are still a long way from recovery.  Additionally, if federal protection is lifted, states may be unwilling or unable to effectively protect wolf populations, or may even go so far as to reduce them through elimination programs or bounties. 

Debbie Sease noted at the rally that the ESA was successful in part because it wasn’t designed with a lot of “off-ramps,” meaning the program was built to really commit the FWS to restoring animal populations—so far it’s working as intended.  But if the wolf is allowed to be delisted, the FWS may be setting a bad precedent.  Mike Jimenez, an expert on gray wolves at the FWS who was on the panel last night, tried to rationalize taking them off the list.  The intent of the ESA, he said, was to save species from extinction, not return them to their historic ranges.  Besides, we live in a sequestered world, and scarce resources might be better used saving other animals from extinction than spreading the gray wolf across the whole of the North American continent.  All arguments against strict constructionism aside, something tells me that the original proponents of the ESA didn’t have meticulous calculation and resource balancing in mind when they enacted legislation designed to safeguard America’s wildlife.  The spirit of the bill was—and still is—to preserve American wildlife heritage, and the gray wolf is right behind the bald eagle in being emblematic of North American wilderness. Let’s not make a program about protecting wild animals into a game of numbers and legislative textual analysis.  Besides, there are ecological problems to be solved by protecting the wolves, too.

The gray wolf is a keystone species, which means it dramatically affects its ecosystem.  Since reintroduction, wolves have reduced elk populations in Yellowstone Park, which has allowed willow and aspen trees to rebound from overgrazing.  Unchecked, grazing animals can easily damage vegetation levels.  Large, unfettered populations of such animals are also prone to disease.  In Michigan, for instance, the large white-tailed deer population has struggled with bovine tuberculosis.  Wolves purposely seek out the sickliest members of the heard while hunting, promoting population health.  These benefits could be applied elsewhere if the wolf’s range spreads.

That’s why over 70 citizens and I publicly testified against removing the gray wolf from the endangered species list last night.  We don’t want the FWS to declare ‘mission accomplished’ because there are strong wolf populations in British Columbia and then leave the wolves in the U.S. vulnerable to the same forces that endangered them in the first place.  We want the wolves to return to the ecosystem.  They provide tangible benefits, and there are effective ways to deal with the threats they pose that do not stoop to trapping and poisoning.  There are even specially bred dogs which are more than capable of defending livestock from wolves.  We want the wolves to be the living embodiment of American wilderness, not just a display at the American Natural History Museum.     

-- by Conor Schultz

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