In an affront to sound science and a brazen subversion of the judicial process, Republican Senators Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and John Barrasso of Wyoming introduced legislation this week to remove federal protections for wolves in the Great Lakes Region and Wyoming. Their overreaching move comes just a week after 25 Democrat senators, led by Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Barbara Boxer of California, signed a letter urging President Obama to reject any bill with an anti-wolf or anti-Endangered Species Act rider, and to allow federal protections for endangered species and court rulings that restored protections for wolves to stand. (Rep. Raul Grijavla, D-AZ, led a similar letter that included 92 House members.)
Sens. Johnson and Barrasso are supported mainly by a band of anti-wolf ideologues, but they have very little support among independent scientists, and certainly not among the millions of Americans who have contacted government officials – all the way to the President – decrying the loss of federal wolf protections. Some months ago, more than 50 world-renowned wildlife biologists and scientists, many of whom have devoted their entire professional careers toward understanding the social and biological issues surrounding wolves in North America, sent a letter to Congress urging members to oppose any efforts to strip federal protections for wolves in the contiguous 48 states. If Congress were to take this adverse action, according to these scientists, it would upend two recent federal court rulings, which criticized the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for distorting the “plain meaning” of the standards of the Endangered Species Act, and admonished several state wildlife agencies for conducting overreaching and dangerous trophy-hunting and trapping programs upon federal delisting.
Rather than removing wolves’ protections completely, there is a better way forward. A federal downlisting to “threatened” would be a far superior option, allowing “lethal management to resolve wolf-livestock conflicts.” The HSUS and 21 animal protection and conservation organizations petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reclassify gray wolves as “threatened” throughout their U.S. range south of Alaska (except the distinct Mexican gray wolf subspecies in the southwest, which should remain listed as endangered). Despite it being the right sort of compromise that balances the national interest in protecting wolves while providing tools to federal and state agencies to allow selective control of wolves to address livestock and property damage, the federal government rejected this middle-ground approach.
Last November, Michigan overwhelmingly rejected a trophy-hunting season on wolves – in the first-ever statewide votes on the issue of wolf hunting. Those votes – in a state with major hunting and agriculture industries – are the best indicators we have that increasing numbers of Americans recognize the wide range of economic and ecological benefits that wolves bring. More than 21 million people have viewed the documentary, How Wolves Change Rivers, showing how wolves move sedentary deer and elk populations so they don’t overgraze or browse. Wolves remove sick and weak animals, preventing slow starvation, and limiting deer-auto collisions and deer depredation on crops. By modulating prey herds, wolves act as a sort of barrier to chronic wasting disease and other infections that could cost the states millions of dollars to eradicate, and in lost hunting license sales. And each year, thousands of wildlife watchers gaze at the world’s most-viewed wolves in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone, bringing in $35 million to the region annually. In the Great Lakes region, the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, brings in as much as $3 million each year from wolf watchers.
It’s just reckless for Congress to start cherry-picking from the list of federally protected species, especially because such actions are so transparently political and driven by the clamor from special interests. Wolves are a much beloved wilderness icon valued by the vast majority of Americans, and with only about 5,000 of them left in the lower 48 states, they should continue to receive federal protection in the places where it’s now provided.
P.S. While some people seek to hurt wolves in gratuitous ways, forgetting that they are individual beings with their own feelings and fears, here is an uplifting rescue of a wild wolf in terrible distress. Several heroes came to the aid of this poor creature, displaying the very best of humanity.