October 11, 2013
By David Scott
My Turn, azcentral.com
Oct 9, 2013
Closed national parks and monuments have become a symbol of the cost of the federal government shutdown.
Vacation plans are on hold, local economies are hurting, hundreds of thousands of Americans are temporarily out of work, and without the federal agencies in charge of monitoring pollution, many Americans have been left vulnerable. So, too, has our wildlife.
Without U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers on the beat, animals such as wolves are at risk — both in the short term from immediate dangers, including poachers, and over the long term from delays in making important management decisions that affect their future recovery.
Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the gray wolf from the list of endangered and threatened species. The proposal would remove Endangered Species Act protections for wolves across nearly the entire lower 48 states, despite the fact that there are still few, if any, wolves in the vast majority of their former range.
It is a critical time for wolves. Yet public hearings scheduled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on the proposed delisting have been delayed, to be rescheduled when the government re-opens.
This is also a critical time for Mexican gray wolves, the smallest, rarest, southernmost-occurring, and most genetically distinct subspecies of North American gray wolf. Although the Mexican wolf would be listed as endangered, the Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to keep and expand its “experimental nonessential status,” even though it remains one of the most endangered animals in North America.
Virtually exterminated in the U.S. by 1970, Mexican wolves were reintroduced north of the border in 1998. But by early 2013 there were still only about 75 Mexican wolves living in the wild in the U.S. These animals are “essential” and should have the full protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Wolf recovery has been one of our greatest Endangered Species Act success stories. Stripping away federal protections now, before the population has fully recovered, will negate the decades of hard work that have gone into bringing wolves back from the brink of extinction in this country.
Without federal protections, this magnificent symbol of our wild heritage will almost assuredly slide back into harm’s way. Wolf hunting seasons have been reintroduced over the last two years in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and more than 550 wolves were killed by hunters or trappers in the Northern Rockies last season alone.
Wolves are among North America’s most charismatic animals. The howl of the wolf is emblematic of our country’s last wild places, reminding us of the power and beauty of the natural world. The oldest and largest ancestor of domestic dogs, wolves once ranged from coast to coast and from Alaska to Mexico, but these magnificent animals have been victims of prejudice since their early encounters with people.
Targeted by bounty hunters for their pelts, they were poisoned, trapped, and shot, until by the 1970s, wolves remained only in remote areas of Minnesota and Michigan in the lower 48 states.
The tide began to turn in 1973 when Congress enacted the Endangered Species Act, and wolves received official protection that same year. Since then, thanks to these federal protections, wolf populations have rebounded in the continental United States.
In response to public outcry and the advocacy of conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s. Today, there are about 1,600 gray wolves in the Northern Rockies and some 3,700 in the Great Lakes states.
Wolves are vitally important to maintaining nature’s balance throughout their habitat, culling out weak and sick animals among their prey, which helps keep deer and elk populations healthy and in check. (Over the last two decades, exploding deer populations have been wreaking havoc on ecosystems from the Rockies to New England and the Great Lakes to the Deep South.)
Wolf reintroduction has also been a factor in the reappearance of willow and aspen trees, the return of beavers, and increased populations of red foxes throughout gray wolf habitat. Wolves are even helping local economies as people from across the country come to view these inspiring icons of wild America.
The current proposal to strip gray wolves of federal protections reflects a political desire, not scientific reality. The proposal is based on a single study that has not been peer-reviewed and relies on a wildlife classification theory that is not generally accepted within the scientific community.
In fact, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s “Proposed Rule Removing the Gray Wolf from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife” is contrary to the fundamental principles of the Endangered Species Act. Now is the time to finish the job of wolf recovery, not abandon the gray wolf to the same kinds of destructive forces that endangered them in the first place.
David Scott is president of the Sierra Club.