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Feds propose delisting the gray wolf, ending 35 years of protection

Grey wolf
This timber wolf in Minnesota is losing protection as an endangered species. | Photo by Jim Brandenburg/Minden Pictures

Just as gray wolves are starting to colonize new terrain, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is proposing to stop protecting them under the Endangered Species Act. The agency considers the species to be "successfully recovered" and no longer in need of sweeping safeguards.

Wolf protection has been dropping for years. Over the past two years, wolves have been delisted in the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota and in the Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Since then, some 1,700 have been killed through officially sanctioned hunts and trapping. In about 85 percent of Wyoming, wolves can be shot on sight.

If it's enacted next year, Fish and Wildlife's proposal to remove wolf protection in the remaining 42 contiguous states could be disastrous, especially for those animals that have recently begun to fan out to the Pacific Northwest and the southern Rocky Mountains. Wolves venturing from their current population centers would be at the mercy of state laws that often cater to livestock associations and hunters.

Wolf advocates argue that the animals still need federal protection because they occupy less than 10 percent of their historic range. (The Endangered Species Act defines a species as endangered if it's "in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.") But, says Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, "managing wolves is too much of a political hot potato for FWS, and they want to walk away from it." The agency set minimum recovery targets for the Great Lakes and Northern Rockies states of around 1,650 and 300 wolves respectively, although scientists believe the minimum viable population for each area is 2,500 to 5,000.

Among the tens of thousands of people protesting the delisting were 16 leading wolf scientists. "The gray wolf has barely begun to recover," they wrote to agency director Dan Ashe, stressing wolves' key role in keeping prey like elk in check. (The FWS subsequently barred three of the signatories from an independent peer-review panel studying the issue.)

"The delisting decision was the result of a series of negotiated deals with states rather than a scientific consensus," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain records of the FWS's closed-door meetings with state officials.

Delisting the gray wolf, Greenwald says, drastically reins in the ambitious intent of the Endangered Species Act. Instead of being restored to their historic range, he says, wolves will only survive as "zoo-like populations." —Karen Angel

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