Just days after the newly constituted Congress commenced its work in the new year, some legislators from the West and the Great Lakes region showed that they have their fangs out for wolves and other animals. They are threatening not just to enable a massive kill of the ecologically and economically beneficial native carnivores, but also to open the floodgates for a host of bills and riders to target other endangered species in the crosshairs of special interests. These legislators have introduced two bills, H.R. 424 and S. 164, dubbed the “War on Wolves Act,” designed to remove federal Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Wyoming and the northern Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and to prevent federal courts from intervening to ensure wolf management is consistent with principles of sound conservation science. They will almost certainly deliver on that promise if Congress passes them and President Donald Trump signs a final bill.
The War on Wolves Act strips the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of its management authority over wolves and hands it off to state agencies whose past actions have shown a bias toward the bloodthirsty. These agencies have treated non-lethal co-existence measures as a sort of management oddity rather than the core of a sound strategy that balances the needs of wolves with the interests of wolf-country residents.
Lawmakers, quick to cater to the vocal minority that wants to hunt and trap wolves, are ignoring the best available science, which reveals that these apex carnivores occupy just a fraction of their original range and number only 5,000 across the entire lower 48 states. That science also shows that random killing of wolves – by trophy hunters and trappers – may actually lead to conflicts between wolves and livestock by disrupting and dispersing stable packs.
When the federal government delisted wolves in 2012 — and before federal lawsuits from The HSUS restored protections — trophy hunters and trappers, along with other causes of mortality, killed nearly a quarter of Minnesota’s wolves. Humans killed nearly one in every five wolves in Wisconsin that same year, including 17 entire family units, and half of the wolves killed in that state’s first season were pups. Michigan also conducted an ill-advised hunt, over the objections of the state’s own voters, in areas where common-sense measures would have prevented the few conflicts that had occurred with livestock and hunting dogs. In fact, between 2012 and 2014, 500 wolves had been killed in the Great Lakes states alone. Wyoming declared that over 80 percent of the state was a wolf “predator zone” — meaning that trophy hunters, trappers, and wildlife services agents had no restrictions on the manner of take, season for the killing, or even the age of pups or yearling animals. That policy is a prescription for local extinction.
This is not a sensible or conservation-minded plan and most definitely not a humane one – it is an all-out, barbaric assault on the forebears of the domesticated dog.
In 2014, two separate federal court decisions returned wolves in the Great Lakes region and Wyoming to protections afforded to them under the ESA. Because of this, the sponsors of the War on Wolves Act included an insidious provision that would prevent citizens from challenging wolf protections through the courts, removing judicial review and putting Congress squarely in charge of making a listing decision. As the Chicago Tribune pointedly remarked when this same attempt was made in 2016: “The only reason to bar court challenges, of course, is to avoid having the legal weakness of your case exposed.”
A study last year showed that most Americans hold positive or even “very positive” associations with wolves. A 2014 statewide survey of nearly 9,000 Wisconsin residents showed most residents believe that wolves are important members of the ecological community who keep deer in balance and should be enjoyed by future generations. Wisconsinites surveyed said they were proud they were “one of the few places in the United States with wolves” and most did not want to see their wolves hunted or trapped.
Upon their reintroduction to Yellowstone, wolves moderated elk from congregating and stripping away vegetation from life-bearing riparian areas. These effects are documented in a popular video called “How Wolves Change Rivers,” based on a lecture by journalist and environmental advocate George Monbiot. The video has attracted more than 31 million views on YouTube. Wolves are also an enormous draw in the Upper Great Lakes, generating millions in commerce, while providing ecological benefits that are incalculable.
If Democrats in Congress, such as Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Amy Klobuchar, continue to align with Republicans on this issue, they will not only destroy wolf families and produce enormous pain and suffering for individual wolves, but they will also cripple defensive efforts to protect other endangered species targeted by special interests who want to remove federal protections for them. This is dangerous stuff, at a time when the ESA is likely to face its most serious and sustained assault ever because of Republican majorities in both chambers and now with Trump in the White House.
Democrats should come to their senses, embrace active management of the occasional problem wolf, and defend both the decisions by scientists and judges to honor the provisions of the ESA. If they do not, we’ll see an emptying of the ark in the United States in this Congress, starting with wolves. We need to send a signal that the American public won’t go for this species-by-species gutting of our nation’s most important wildlife protection law.