Nowhere to run: Congress takes aim at gray wolves in the Northwest; Great Lakes

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Three Congressman have proposed a bill that would remove the remaining gray wolves in Washington, Oregon and Utah from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The move has angered animal rights groups that argue these states have so few wolves – just 68 in Washington and 77 in Oregon, according to official counts – that removing protections is beyond premature.

“It’s hard to make a reasonable case that 77 known animals of any species is a legitimate, sustainable recovery,” Rob Klavins of Oregon Wild told KUOW News. “And it’s not appropriate to be treating wolves differently just because they may be controversial for some people.”

What’s more, the actual number of wolves that even fall under federal protection in the two states is even fewer, just 18. That’s because in the eastern third of each state, federal protections already were removed in 2011, when the US Fish & Wildlife Service also removed protections for all gray wolves across the entire states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

This latest move against the wolves is an almost mirror image of another bill, introduced earlier this year, would take away federal protections for wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

In the Rocky Mountain region, the wolves have been under siege in most of their territory, facing bounty hunting in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, though in Oregon and Washington, the nascent wolf packs have been protected.

The anti-wolf voices in those two states, however, have expressed fears that the animals will congregate in their states, chased out of the others by bounty hunters.

Apparently Utah, where even fewer wolves are known to live, also fears wolf immigration.

The main sponsor of the legislation is US Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.); cosponsors are Reps. Chris Steward (R-Utah) and  Greg Walden, R-Ore.

“This is a commonsense bill that would allow states to provide a more flexible management program and move forward with the implementation of the gray wolf delisting efforts, which are long overdue,” said Rep. Newhouse on his website. “States are fully qualified to manage gray wolf populations responsibly and are better equipped to meet the needs of local communities, ranchers, livestock, and wildlife populations.

The bill, HR 1985, was introduced on Friday. It has a longer name, “Pacific Northwest 5 Gray Wolf Management Act of 2015,” but 1985 works as well, because if you roll back to 1985 that’s when gray wolves were considered extinct in the US Rocky Mountain states. They’d been hunted and trapped into extinction by the middle of the 20th Century.

The wolves were reintroduced in the mid-1990s to the Yellowstone National Park area and allowed to spread out from there. The Rocky Mountains being natural habitat for gray wolves, they flourished. And so in the mid-2000s, federal officials began efforts to remove them from the Endangered Species Act protections, having determined that the species was adequately recovered. Environmental groups fought the federal officials in court, arguing that the science showed that the wolves needed to be left alone for a few more years.

But ranchers, hunters and state game officials generally agreed that it was time to remove the wolves from protections. In 2011, Congress stepped in, circumventing the court battles over the wolves, and directly stripped the animals of their endangered status in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and the eastern third of Oregon and Washington. The management of wolves was returned to the states. Within the year, hunting began in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and the population, estimated at 2,000 to 2500 wolves across the upper Rocky Mountain area began to decline.

Estimates are hard to come by now, with the management dispersed. But gray wolves are believed to still number several hundred in Idaho, with a few hundred in Montana and Wyoming. The state game agencies say they’ve set bottom thresholds that they’ve pledged will sustain smaller wolf populations within each state.

The wolves living within Yellowstone National Park remain protected from hunters, though several have been shot when they left the park. Wolves, like other top predators, roam over large territories and often cross borders.

One rational for removing federal protections for the tiny population of wolves in Oregon and Washington – those 18 that live in the still federally protected western portions of the states – is that it duplicates effort because both Washington and Oregon state wildlife offices have protections for wolves.

But while the federal law would turn over control to the states, it also dictates that the states cannot go all soft on the wolves. To prevent that, the bill dictates that the states may not have protections that exceed what the federal government offers.

“A covered State may not provide protections to wolves that is greater than the protections that would be provided under the Endangered Species Act of 1973,” HB 1985 states.

The bill, it seems, wants to give the locals control, but not without first setting limits. It’s also unclear what kind of plush deal Oregon and Washington could offer the wolves that might exceed protection under the ESA.

Both federal and state protections allow ranchers to kill wolves when they’ve preyed on their livestock.

THE GREAT LAKES WOLVES

A similar bill removing the gray wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan also is pending in Congress, introduced by US House Republicans hailing from those states. The US Fish & Wildlife Service took the Great Lakes wolves off the Endangered Species List in 2011, but the courts rules that the decision had not been properly handled and protections were restored.

Defenders of Wildlife has taken issue with Congressional interference with the ESA, accusing the three Great Lakes representatives of playing scientists, when they’re not.

“Congressional delisting of wolves under the Endangered Species Act in Wyoming (where the delisting went back to court) and the Great Lakes will surely throw open the floodgates to endless proposals to delist additional species based upon politics and not science, undermining the integrity of the act and our ability to conserve the nation’s most imperiled wildlife.”

In other words, with Congress acting directly to make wildlife management decisions, it’s easy to envision scenarios in which industries plead their case for ESA removals.

Several environmental groups fought the Rocky Mountain and Great Lakes delistings in court and maintain that viable populations of wolves are entitled to their historic range in the US. The groups have said that in the West, appropriate habitat remains in Colorado and parts of Oregon, Washington and Utah. In the Great Lakes region, the northern portions of all three states offer suitable habitat.

In February, a group of 52 wildlife scientists wrote to Congress, pleading for lawmakers to take a more studied conservation approach to wolves and recognize that the animals help keep ecosystems healthy, yet they’ve been persecuted and denied their rightful place in the wild. Excerpts from that letter:

Wolves in Yellowstone 2, Greater Ystone Science Center

We, the undersigned scientists, are writing to express opposition to the prospect that Congress might act to delist gray wolves (Canis lupus) from the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The best available science indicates that the gray wolf occupies a mere fraction of its historic range and  therefore has not yet recovered from centuries of systematic persecution.ii For this reason, and in recognition of the ecological benefits wolves bring,
millions of tourism dollars to local economies, and  abundant knowledge from scientific study, we ask Congress to act to conserve the species for future generations. . . .

(Wolves. Photo: Greater Yellowstone Science Center)

Currently, wolves are absent from most of the United States, with potentially secure populations in only a handful of states (Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan). Yet, in those same states, the loss of federal protections resulted in state-sanctioned seasons on wolves at levels designed to reduce their populations to arbitrary goals, which were based on politics but not the best available science. For instance, since delisting, in Minnesota, the population has been reduced by 20 percent, and in Wisconsin, by at least 15 percent, but likely by more.vii Before a federal court intervened, the Wyoming Legislature ordered that 80 percent of the state be open to unlimited wolf killing. Killing of wolves in Montana and Wyoming has even included wolves that should enjoy protections in Yellowstone and Teton national parks —the place where thousands of tourists go annually just to see wolves and support rural economies.

The scientists wrote that even with wolves protected under the ESA ranchers still had recourse and options for preventing and receiving compensation for predation from wolves. They added that humans have little to fear from allowing wolves to roam their natural territory.

Some have expressed their concern for human safety, but such fears should not be an obstacle to recovery. While there has never been a record of a healthy wild wolf attacking a human in the lower 48 states, the ESA listing still allows lethal removal of wolves for human safety reasons.

(Photo at top: Greater Yellowstone Science Center.)





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