No one expects wolves to return to everywhere in the world they once roamed — they’ll hardly be able to find comfortable dens in the wilds of Central Park in New York City — but how much territory wolves can be expected to recover, and whether they’ll need the Endangered Species Act to protect them along the way, is up for debate as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s hearings on proposed rules for wolf management come to Denver on Nov. 19.
In some states, gray wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List by Congress — an unprecedented move — in 2011.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed rules that would remove the gray wolf from the list of endangered and threatened species nationwide, while adjusting the habitat size for what’s considered viable for wolf recovery, and give the ongoing management of wolf populations over to states. The Service will focus instead on protecting the Mexican wolf, an endangered subspecies the Service has determined is the only remaining population that needs the protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Gray wolves are considered to have successfully recovered in the western Great Lakes states and the Northern Rockies after three decades of management to restore the species there. Given anthropogenic changes to the countryside outside those areas, they may struggle to regain homes in other places that were historically their habitat.
In the northern Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and eastern Oregon and Washington, wolves have already been delisted as recovered. Their population as of the end of 2012 was estimated at 1,674. The western Great Lakes region in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan reported a population of 3,686 at the end of 2012, and wolves were delisted there in 2012.
A wolf in Yellowstone National Park | Photo by Arthur Middleton, University of Wyoming
Environmental groups call the move to nationally delist wolves premature, and claim that stripping protections from wolves, one of a handful of species to ever be removed from the Endangered Species List, will hinder their recovery. They point to states such as Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Wisconsin and Minnesota where delisting wolves has been shortly followed by wolf hunting seasons that have taken more than 1,100 wolves and reduced the population by 7 percent as a sign of the treatment wolves would find in other states, should they attempt to regain territory in more of the 30 states where the Service is watching for their presence.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe has called the gray wolf ’s recovery “one of the spectacular success of the Endangered Species Act” and a key example of the Service being a “collection of people who get things done.”
“I’ve always liked the analogy of the ESA as biodiversity’s emergency room,” reads a June 7 blog from Ashe on the Service’s website to accompany the announcement of proposed nationwide delisting of gray wolves. “We are given patient species that need intensive care. We stabilize them; we get them through recovery. Then we hand them to other providers who will ensure they get the long-term care that they need and deserve.”
In a press release from the same day, Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with Center for Biological Diversity, declared, “This is like kicking a patient out of the hospital when they’re still attached to life support. Wolves cling to a sliver of their historic habitat in the lower 48, and now the Obama administration wants to arbitrarily declare victory and move on. They need to finish the job that Americans expect, not walk away the first chance they get. This proposal is a national disgrace. Our wildlife deserve better.”
Wolves in Yellowstone. | Photo by Doug Smith / WikiMedia Commons
The revised plan from the Service for expected wolf recovery scales back their geographic area for gray wolf recovery. Gray wolves can’t ever recover to where they once were, Ashe concedes, because now, those areas are covered by livestock ranches and urban development. But, he says, the agency’s work has created the potential that wolves may one day live everywhere they can.
“The proposal is basically to right size the habitat that’s for wolves with what is actually viable for wolves, so it’s more or less limited the size of the recovery area,” says Leith Edgar, public affairs specialist for the Mountain- Prairie Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But the species is no longer in danger of extinction and so considered to no longer need the protections the Endangered Species Act extends in the hope of defending species from extinction. States will manage their own populations of wolves — should wolves arrive in Colorado, it’s up to state parks and wildlife officials to make a decision about how to manage that wolf because the Endangered Species Act no longer applies.
The nationwide nonprofit National Wolfwatcher Coalition contends otherwise.
“One of the key provisions for delisting to take place … says that the threats that caused the species to become endangered in the first place no longer exist,” says Nancy Warren, Great Lakes regional director for the National Wolfwatcher Coalition. “We contend that those threats still exist.”
Wolves were hunted to extirpation in the lower 48 states almost a century ago, and that interest in hunting them to the point of extinction continues, wolf advocates argue. Though thousands of wolves have returned to the contiguous U.S., they occupy just 5 percent of their historic habitat.
“I know we’ll never have wolves in New York City, for example. Central Park, even though it’s a beautiful park and it’s a large park in New York, it’s never going to hold a population of wolves,” Warren says. “So there are areas where we know we’re never going to have wolves. But there is tremendous suitable habitat in the country, we have Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, the Northeast sections of the country — all are prime habitat and have adequate prey base to support healthy populations of wolves, but with the delisting it’s going to turn management over to these states and again with these anti-wolf politics, wolves won’t have a chance.”
Wolf hunting in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho will also reduce the wolf populations there to the point that they won’t have the opportunities to disperse to neighboring states with similarly suitable habitat, Warren argues.
“Let’s not worry about New York City, let’s not worry about New Jersey — we don’t really necessarily want or need wolves in those areas,” she says. “But we do have some of the prime core areas that should be restored and the feds must allow this to happen before turning over the authority to the states.”
To say that wolves will never return to those states without Endangered Species Act protections for the species is a jump to conclusions, Edgar says.
“I wouldn’t speculate more than to say that these wolves have proven extraordinarily resilient in their recovery,” Edgar says. “From the time of their reintroduction in Yellowstone, they’ve come a long way in a short amount of time relative to what recovery can take for other species, so I just, I wouldn’t bet against the wolves.”
The proposed rule changes from the Fish and Wildlife Service are two-fold — first to reassess the recovery plan for gray wolves, but then to move the attention in resources to offering enhanced protections to Mexican wolves.
“Basically, a switch in focus to a species more in need,” Edgar says.
The Service has proposed maintaining protection and expanding recovery for the Mexican wolf in the Southwest, where it remains endangered. The limited resources available to intensive care now needs to go to Mexican wolves, which would be designated an endangered subspecies.
The Fish and Wildlife Service estimated in 1998 that there were four Mexican wolves left in the Blue Range Recovery Area, none of them successfully breeding. The 2012 population count of Mexican wolves showed record high numbers in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area — at least 75, in 14 packs. But only three of them had pups in that year that survived until Dec. 31 of that year, down from an average of five of six successful breeding pairs in the mid- 2000s.
The genetically limited pool — which has been further limited by shooting and trapping, including federally called-for relocations and euthanasia when wolves become a problem among local livestock — has led to smaller Mexican wolf litters and lower survival rates for pups, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Lobos of the Southwest, a Mexican wolf protection organization, says that the rule is part good, and part bad, and may actually threaten the survival and recovery of Mexican gray wolves.
“The problem is the bad overrides all of the good, so the good is pretty much useless because of the bad,” says David Parsons, who was the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Mexican wolf recovery coordinator 1990-1999 and primary author of the rule that established the nonessential experimental population of Mexican wolves.
He enumerates the problems with the current proposal: “It’s an old objective, it’s likely to be met even without what they’re doing, it’s not based on the best science, it doesn’t support full recovery of the wolf and then the last thing is that they’re proposing to continue this designation of nonessential experimental population,” Parsons says. That nonessential experimental population designation allows federal managers more flexibility in managing the wildlife, but issues the wildlife fewer protections.
A Mexican wolf | Photo by Trisha Shears
“Just on the face of it, it’s pretty hard to argue that if you lost the only wild population of Mexican wolves, that that would not affect the continued existence of the wolves in the wild,” Parsons says. “It’s just that obvious.”
Parsons served on a team that combined scientists and stakeholders to redefine what recovery should look like — some 30 years after the original plan was drafted in 1981. A draft report from the scientists on that team, presented at the last team meeting in November 2011, called for three populations of wolves in three areas across Arizona, New Mexico and southern Colorado, with a minimum 200 wolves in each area and a total minimum among all three of 750 wolves. Connections should be protected among the three areas to allow the wolves to intermingle and mix genes.
“So that’s the picture that’s now out there as to what full recovery should look like,” Parsons says.
The proposal from the Fish and Wildlife Service does allow for expanded habitat for Mexican wolves, which currently are trapped and returned to their 7,000 square mile Blue Range Recovery Area any time they leave the area.
“That’s a good thing — it allows wolves to disperse and actually make their own choices as to what’s suitable habitat from the way they see the world,” Parsons says.
But it doesn’t allow them access to those two areas science suggests would be critical to their recovery.
“This rule should be worded in a way that it does not interfere with or preclude or block any future recovery option that would flow from what we now know is the best available science to finding full recovery of Mexican wolves,” Parsons says.
The problem is, the plan is based on 31-year-old research and similarly old target populations, he says.
“Back 31 years ago, when they wrote the recovery plan, all the Mexican wolves that had lived in the wild had been killed out,” Parsons says. “Their objective at the time was essentially to avert extinction, so they wrote a plan that said, we can’t even begin to think what full recovery would look like, but we need to get started to avoid this subspecies from going extinct.”
The plan called for recovery to a population of 100 — and the population now is at 75.
“It’s very likely that the population will reach 100 wolves before they even reach the end of this process — and their objective from this process is 100 wolves, and then it’s done,” Parson says. “So it’s just craziness. It doesn’t make any sense. It seems like a tremendous waste of effort.”
Revising the rules is an expensive and time-consuming process that once done can take decades to restart. It’s important to do it right this time, he says, and that means using the best science available.
The public hearing on the wolf management proposals from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be held from 6-8:30 p.m. on Nov. 19 at the Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place, Denver. Additional information is available at www.fws.gov/home/wolfrecovery/. The Service is also taking online comments on the proposal through Dec. 17.