Debate rages over ‘de-listing’ wolves

Wolves may not be ‘endangered’ anymore, but have they recovered?

  • WADING IN CONTROVERSY: As wolf numbers grow, so does the debate over how to manage them

    Glenn Oakley

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the first step toward removing the wolf from the endangered species list in early April, when it reclassified the wolf as threatened, rather then endangered, throughout most of the West. The agency broadcast the news as a success for the Endangered Species Act.

But wildlife groups are howling over the new classification, first proposed in 2000. “We have differences in evaluating what determines success,” says Nancy Weiss of Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that championed reintroducing wolves to the Northern Rockies. “I see this as a disappointment.”

Ed Bangs, the Western Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, says the new status is appropriate.“The bottom line is the wolf population continues to grow, and with this growth we can have more management flexibility,” he says.

Wolf management will not change dramatically in most of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, where the reintroduced wolves are considered “experimental” — meaning they have had looser protection standards than other endangered species. The changes will mainly affect surrounding states, where until now, wolves have had full federal protection, and only the Fish and Wildlife Service has been allowed to control animals that cause problems.

The new “threatened” status permits citizens in most of the West to shoot wolves on private land that are attacking dogs or livestock and herding animals. On private land, Bangs says people can now harass a wolf “at any time or for any reason as long as you don’t hurt it.” States and tribes can pass regulations on shooting problem wolves on their lands, and can move the predators to protect game herds.

Most significantly, the reclassification starts the process of removing Western wolves from all federal endangered species protections, and turning wolf management over to the states.

How do you spell success?

If the wolf is a teacher, as taught by Native American stories, its latest lesson is about the definition of “recovery” in federal law.

Ron Refsnider, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and primary author of the reclassification document, compares the Endangered Species Act to an emergency room for animals about to go extinct: “Once the emergency is gone, then we must give regulation back to the states and tribes.”

The service’s 1987 Wolf Recovery Plan for the Northern Rockies requires at least 30 breeding pairs (a male and female with two surviving pups) for three consecutive years before the “de-listing” process can begin. In December 2002, the wolves met that goal when Montana, Wyoming and Idaho had 44 documented packs and 664 wolves.

But what angers some conservationists is the way the new classification seems to broadcast that “recovery” across other states. The Western wolf population — one of three in the Lower 48 — includes Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and northern Utah and Colorado. Although some of these states have seen only a handful of wolves — or none at all — in recent decades, the service no longer considers wolves in these states endangered, thanks to the healthy population in the Northern Rockies.

“The Endangered Species Act says its intent is to restore species to all or a significant portion of their range,” says Rob Edward, director of Sinapu, a nonprofit organization advocating returning wolves to Colorado. “Significant is not less than 5 percent of their historic range,” he says, referring to the wolves’ current distribution.

Defenders of Wildlife agrees, and has announced its intent to sue over the reclassification. Defenders’ vice president of species conservation, Nina Fascione, says the Fish and Wildlife Service “has done a good job on wolves so far, but the job isn’t done yet.”

The Eastern wolf population, spanning from Maine to North Dakota, is also classified as threatened, but the Southwestern population — the Mexican wolves — remains “endangered.”

States are on deck

One hurdle remains before the Fish and Wildlife Service can remove the Western wolves’ threatened status — the agency must be assured that wolves will retain their numbers once back in the hands of the states. With that in mind, the service ordered the states with wolf packs — Idaho, Montana and Wyoming — to write new wolf-management plans. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton and the Fish and Wildlife Service will look at the three plans as a package, and then decide if they will keep wolves from sliding back to threatened or endangered status (HCN, 5/27/02: Wolf at the door).

So far, the states have moved ahead only grudgingly. The first page of Idaho’s management plan reads, “Idaho is on the record asking the federal government to remove wolves from the state.” Approved in 2002, the plan goes on to accept 15 or more packs and agrees to manage wolf numbers with a “big game” hunting season, like that for bears and mountain lions.

Montana is holding public hearings this month on its proposed plan to maintain 15 breeding pairs and to treat the wolves as “big game,” as Idaho seeks to do. The state Legislature recently threw out a law calling the animals “predatory,” a classification that would have allowed unregulated hunting if they were de-listed.

In Wyoming, Gov. Dave Freudenthal recently approved a plan to manage wolves as “trophy game” with a regular hunting season in wilderness areas near national parks. Outside these areas, wolves would be considered predatory, and could be shot on sight. Other Western states must decide for themselves if wolves can return, but the atmosphere is less then friendly (HCN, 12/23/02: Northwest braces itself for wolves). Since January, state legislators in the West have introduced 23 anti-wolf bills, according to Defenders of Wildlife.

If Idaho, Wyoming and Montana do their parts, the Fish and Wildlife Service could propose removing all remaining federal protections from the Western wolves as soon as the end of this year. Secretary Norton has expressed concerns over Wyoming’s management plan, but Ed Bangs says the agency will wait to weigh all the plans together.

“This is the time for the states to show us and the public how they would manage wolves,” says Bangs. “They are big boys; we don’t need to hold their hand. It is their chance to shine.”

The writer is a High Country News intern.

You can contact ...

      Ed Bangs, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 406/449-5225 ext. 204;
      Nancy Weiss, Defenders of Wildlife, 541/772-9653;
      Rob Edward, Sinapu, 303/447-8655;
       or, see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site,
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