Yesterday, the Obama Administration, via the U.S. Department of the Interior, announced a final rule de-listing wolves in the Great Lakes Region, officially removing all federal protection for wolves in the states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. State wildlife management officials, along with the trophy hunting, trapping, and ranching lobbies—and the politicians beholden to them—have been clamoring for years to de-list wolves, and only a series of successful HSUS lawsuits have prevented that from happening. We’ll now be examining our legal options and may again urge a federal court to block this premature removal of wolves from the list of threatened species.
The HSUS and a coalition of conservation groups succeeded in a series of legal actions to block de-listing in the Northern Rockies, but eight months ago, Congress de-listed that population through the unprecedented step of attaching a rider to a massive budget bill. As we predicted, sport hunters and trappers have proceeded, hastily and recklessly, to slaughter wolves in Idaho and Montana, and the killing is now set to ramp up next in Wyoming.
Wolves in the United States have suffered a long history of human persecution, with state and federal officials and private citizens amassing a grisly and enormous body count. These actions over time resulted in the extirpation of wolves from everywhere in the Lower 48 except the far northern reaches of Minnesota and Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Now, with wolf populations allowed to reclaim just a small portion of their habitats, the same anti-wolf hysteria of the 19th century that nearly exterminated them has resurfaced, with irrational claims being made about the impacts that wolves have on deer, elk, and livestock populations. These notions are not grounded on fact, but upon the mythology of the wolf as a rapacious predator that slaughters everything in its path.
Even with protection under the Endangered Species Act in place for some wolves over the last 35 years, wolves now occupy less than five percent of their historical range in the lower 48 states. There are some 4,000 wolves in the Northern Great Lakes and fewer than half that number in the Northern Rockies. The listing of these wolves under the provisions of the ESA has shielded them from run-away exploitation, but the political pressure to de-list them has been great, and the resolve of the Bush and Obama administrations to protect these animals proved weak.
The anti-wolf crusaders have staked out an anti-science, anti-ecological posture. There is superabundant scientific evidence that wolves have had an enormously beneficial ecological impact in the range they inhabit. They cull weak, old, and sick animals from populations, reducing total numbers of prey populations, and thereby mitigating the browsing on vegetation and bringing great vitality to the entire ecosystem. With less grazing pressure, new saplings have taken hold to form young groves. Stream flow and quality has improved. Other predators, like coyotes, have also been reduced in density, and there’s been a cascade effect that’s restored many of the original characteristics and dynamics of the animal and plant and forest communities.
Still, wolf recovery in the Great Lakes region is far from complete. And hostile state management plans in the region—some of which would allow a nearly 50 percent reduction of the region's wolf population—make it likely that the recovery that has thus far been achieved could be reversed by high levels of trapping, poisoning and recreational hunting.
Claims of wolf depredation on livestock are often sensationalized. Last year in Wisconsin wolf depredations occurred on only 47 farms out of 7,000 in the state, and only 63 cattle and 6 sheep were killed. Many people complain about impacts from abundant deer populations—whether deer-auto collisions or browsing on commercial or ornamental shrubbery—but somehow the beneficial social and economic factors of having predators in the ecosystem are omitted from their analysis. It’s plain that the economics work in favor of wolf protection, not against it.
A small, vocal segment, driven by an irrational hatred of wolves, is driving the decision-making. Political leaders in these states are all too ready to bow to the pressure and to buy into the rhetoric and false framing, and it’s the wolves who suffer. It’s yet another example of adverse policy actions by this Administration on animal welfare and conservation. It talks a good game of science-based decision-making and sound policy, but in the end kowtows to traditional special interests (most of which will never vote for Obama). There’s not much “change” to be found, but just more of the same old ways of Washington.