By Jacob Morton
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has announced it will no longer provide federal protections to the gray wolf and will remove the species from the Endangered Species List. The announcement came just days before the presidential election on November 3, fueling the flames of what has been a controversial debate for decades in states considered key battlegrounds for the 2020 election.
The gray wolf has received protections from the federal government since the 1960’s after being nearly eradicated from the contiguous United States under government-sponsored poisoning and trapping campaigns. In 1978, the gray wolf was added to the Endangered Species List, with only 1,000 gray wolves remaining in the lower 48 states. Protected under the Endangered Species Act for over four decades, gray wolf populations have seen a tremendous recovery, with more than 6,000 gray wolves now living below the Canadian border.
Attempts have been made on numerous occasions to delist the gray wolf, including by the Obama administration in 2011. Federal protection of the gray wolf has been a controversial issue since it began. The debate tends to pit environmentalists against hunters, ranchers and farmers who see the gray wolf as a threat to their livelihoods. Ranchers have struggled to protect their herds from wolf attacks, and hunters complain of having to compete with wolves for deer and elk.
The Trump administration’s proposal will go into effect 60 days after being posted to the Federal Register on November 3. Once removed from the Endangered Species List, the protection and management of gray wolves will fall under state and tribal control. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will continue to monitor wolf populations for five years “to ensure the continued success of the species.” U.S. Interior Secretary, David Bernhardt says, “After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery,” and as determined by the agency, “this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law.”
Republican Congressman of Utah, Bob Bishop, praised the decision by the federal government to hand over management to the states, saying, “The gray wolf is one of the most successful species recoveries in history, despite the mounds of federal red tape and abusive litigation preventing this long-overdue delisting.” Bishop says, “It’s unfortunate it took this long for the federal government to turn management back to the states, when in fact state management and expertise is what got us to where we are today.” Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe also agrees gray wolf populations have recovered and the agency should “move on” and redirect energies to other wildlife in need.
The announcement from the Department of Interior points to the growing gray wolf populations across the Western Great Lakes region in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, as well as expanded ranges “into western Oregon, western Washington, northern California and most recently in northwest Colorado.” The agency’s press release makes a point to note that “No administration in history has recovered more imperiled species in their first term than the Trump Administration,” with 13 species removed from the Endangered Species List since 2017. Environmentalists and conservation organizations argue that delisting a species is only worth praising if done appropriately.
EarthJustice attorney Kristen Boyles, argues that despite the remarkable recovery so far, delisting gray wolves now is premature. Boyles says, “This is no ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment for wolf recovery. Wolves are only starting to get a toehold in places like Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, and wolves need federal protection to explore habitat in the Southern Rockies and the Northeast.” Biologists say the recovery is still fragile in many states and gray wolf populations have not fully recovered throughout their historical habitat. Prior to the mid-20th century, gray wolves existed across most of North America.
Joanna Lambert, a professor of animal ecology at the University of Colorado Boulder says the bulk of the recovered gray wolf population has been seen in the western Great Lakes region and the Northern Rockies, “But outside these clusters, wolves haven’t established viable populations.” Lambert argues, “Although parts of Colorado, Utah and California could be ideal wolf habitat, there are hardly any packs in these states. It’s unclear whether gray wolves will be able to expand their range without the federal protections they’ve had for nearly 50 years.” Several biologists and former government officials claim the administration’s proposal lacks scientific justification and that “the agency’s conclusions were based on factual omissions and errors.” Critics point out that “the proposal barely considered the effects of climate change” and its impact on gray wolf habitat and prey.
Many environmentalists see the delisting proposal as an attempt by the Trump administration to appeal to rural voters in the election battleground states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. Ranchers, farmers, and hunters in these states have largely advocated for leaving the management of gray wolves in the hands of state and tribal governments. Many believe their livelihoods are at stake and feel state regulation provides greater flexibility for managing the relationship between wolves and humans. Ashleigh Calaway of Pittsville, Wisconsin lost 13 of her family’s sheep to wolves in July 2019. Calaway says that giving control back to the states would allow for “state-sponsored hunts” to keep local wolf populations at a managed level and “lower the risk to sheep and cattle.” Miles Kuschel, a third-generation rancher in north-central Minnesota, says he has watched the wolves’ territory expand over the past few decades to surround his land. Kuschel argues that under state management, “farmers and ranchers have the ability to protect their livelihoods and livestock.”
Adrian Treves, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin recalls that when federal protections had been lifted years prior in the western Great Lakes region, gray wolf populations declined significantly, citing exhaustive hunting seasons and poachers “emboldened by the absence of federal enforcement.” Treves says, “The science is 100 percent clear that there will be a spike in mortality.” Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity says her organization plans to sue. “The courts recognize, even if the feds don’t, that the Endangered Species Act requires real wolf recovery, including in the southern Rockies and other places with ideal wolf habitat.” She argues that with this proposal, “the Fish and Wildlife Service has just adopted the broadest, most destructive delisting rule yet.”
Maureen Hackett, founder of Minnesota-based Howling for Wolves, is sensitive to the divisions this long-standing debate has created, recognizing it as a complex issue. A survey sent out by the University of Minnesota revealed that Minnesota residents “largely agree that maintaining a wolf population in Minnesota is important, and that they should occupy about the same amount of habitat.” However, opinions diverged over the proposal of a wolf hunting season as an appropriate solution for a sustainable human-wolf relationship. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, representing 11 Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan opposes the delisting of gray wolves as well as strongly opposes a wolf hunting season. A spokesperson for the Commission says, “Wolves are seen as relatives to the Anishinaabe and we don’t believe in hunting our relatives.”
Many Fish and Wildlife Service scientists believe wolf populations can continue to expand without Federal protection, but support from the states would be crucial. Hackett argues, “We need a non-lethal wolf plan and continued funding for prevention methods for farmers and ranchers to ensure an intact and healthy wolf population, because the wolf is vital for our ecology and the legacy of future Minnesotans.”
- Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit public interest environmental law organization. https://earthjustice.org/
Center for Biological Diversity
- Working to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive. https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/
The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission
- GLIFWC provides natural resource management expertise, conservation enforcement, legal and policy analysis, and public information services in support of the exercise of treaty rights during well-regulated, off-reservation seasons throughout the treaty ceded territories. http://www.glifwc.org/
Learn More References
Associated Press. (2020, October 29). Trump officials end gray wolf protections across most of U.S. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.mprnews.org/story/2020/10/29/trump-officials-end-gray-wolf-protections-across-most-of-us
Brown, M., Flesher, J., & Mone, J. (2020, November 13). Trump officials end gray wolf protections across most of US. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory/correction-gray-wolves-endangered-story-74192466
Interior Press. (2020, October 30). Trump Administration Returns Management and Protection of Gray Wolves to States and Tribes Following Successful Recovery Efforts. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.doi.gov/pressreleases/trump-administration-returns-management-and-protection-gray-wolves-states-and-tribes
Kraker, D. (2020, October 30). Gray wolves lose federal protection; state will manage instead. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.mprnews.org/story/2020/10/30/gray-wolves-lose-federal-protection-state-will-manage-instead
Phillips, A. M. (2020, October 29). Trump administration drops gray wolf from endangered species list. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-10-29/trump-administration-drops-gray-wolf-from-endangered-list-ending-all-federal-protection
Rott, N. (2020, October 29). Gray Wolves to Be Removed from Endangered Species List. Retrieved November 15, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/2020/10/29/929095979/gray-wolves-to-be-removed-from-endangered-species-list