Today The Wolf Conservation Center hit the 2 MILLION likes mark on Facebook! An impressive milestone and one we never anticipated when we joined Facebook on August 21, 2009. We thank all of our supporters for liking, sharing, acting, supporting, laughing, posting, inspiring, giving, visiting, caring, and understanding. We are humbled by the support and so incredibly appreciative to have found this awesome family on Facebook. The Wolf Conservation Center’s 24 wolves are thankful too and have something to say.

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TODAY – U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) listed the Mexican gray wolf as a separate subspecies under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), separate from other gray wolves! Big thanks to all of you and our friends from Mexican gray wolves, who continue to fight for this essential sentry of the Southwest! More…

Please consider emailing USFWS Director Dan Ashe to thank him for listing the Mexican gray wolf and ask him to expedite a new Mexican wolf recovery plan.

View the Mexican gray wolf ESA listing federal register notice here.

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Do you remember when Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) successfully removed federal protections from wolves in their states by putting a rider on 2011′s must-pass federal budget bill? History may repeat itself…

Several members of Congress are preparing to introduce legislation soon to take wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Wyoming off the endangered list.

Learn more and stay tuned for updates as they come in…

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The “Right to be Wild,” is a tale of hope, struggle, survival and determination. It is the story of the Mexican gray wolf; a wolf that is one the most endangered mammals in North America and the most endangered subspecies of gray wolf in the world. It is also a story about people who work hard and tirelessly trying to save them.

Learn how you can support this film here.

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“…the best wolf habitat resides in the human heart. You have to leave a little space for them to live.”

~ Ed Bangs (Former Wolf Recovery Coordinator U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Yellowstone: The “little space” wolves were given 20 years ago today when the federal government gave the green light to return wolves to portions of their native range in the West. The reintroduction of gray wolves to our first national park has been described as a near-miracle, having occurred at one of those rare moments when stars align in the political sky.

A wildlife conservation effort with such positive environmental impact (and ongoing controversy) will likely go unmatched for a long time. But with the support of the American public two decades ago, a new chapter in Yellowstone’s history began, with a homecoming that changed the Park.

Many people are familiar with “The Yellowstone Story:” the remarkable rejuvenation of the Yellowstone landscape since the reintroduction of this keystone species. Wolves were exterminated in the Park by the mid-1920s but, since wolf populations were restored, scientists have noted more diverse plant and wildlife thriving where they had been suppressed for decades.

Articles and books for children and adults alike have recounted this narrative and wildlife enthusiasts have flocked to Yellowstone to behold the “wolf-effect” first hand. Since the arrival of those first 14 wolves, the species have thrived in the park, inspiring those who spy them through their scopes. I’ve been to the park a half a dozen times in recent years, but my outing in October of 2012 was full of “firsts.”

I brought my 5-year-old daughter with me, and for the first time I was given the amazing opportunity to experience Yellowstone first hand and through her eyes as well. We watched a Rough-Legged Hawk tirelessly plummet from the sky into the tall grass to come up empty handed time and time again. “Good for the mouse, bad for the bird,” she said. We watched wolves pursue elk and emerge victorious. “Good for the wolves, bad for the elk,” she said. Nature’s balance.

It was also my first visit to the park during wolf hunting season. A piece of Yellowstone is located in Montana, another in Idaho, but the majority of the park falls in Wyoming – a state that permits wolves to be killed by any means, at any time, without a license in all but its northwest corner. Wolves sheltered in the park have always known threats. Wolf populations regulate themselves by natural forces such as intra-pack strife, competition with neighboring packs and predators, and ailments like distemper and mange. Packs continuously emerge and collapse; it’s Nature’s way. But with authorized wolf hunts in every state that borders the park, Yellowstone wolves face countless threats and some not lawful. During our stay a dead horse was staged just outside the northern border of the Park to lure members of the often observed Blacktail pack beyond the safety of Yellowstone’s reach. Many of the Park’s neighboring communities are avidly anti-wolf and sometimes the more popular the wolf, the bigger target they become. With so many unnatural threats, will the balance my daughter so easily recognized be lost?

How is it that wolves can be considered so worthless, when they alone have drawn an abundance of tourists to Yellowstone since their return to the West? National Parks Service estimates that wolf watchers bring $35M tourism dollars to the greater Yellowstone area annually. Sadly, the economic and ecological value of wolves remains ignored. By the end of December 2012, the Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming hunts claimed 338 wolves including at least 10 wolves from Yellowstone.  And hundreds more from the Northern Rocky Mountain states since. I do encourage young and old to visit Yellowstone, to be touched it’s dynamic landscape and it’s well adapted beasts. But be mindful to support those who do not aim to destroy the very purpose of your visit.

WCC Executive Director, Maggie Howell

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It’s Throwback Thursday (#tbt)! Big thanks to United States Senator Jack Reed (RI) for celebrating the weekly social media tradition with a “howl-out” tweet for wolves!

On May 21, 2012 Rhode Island’s Wakefield Hills Elementary School’s students were gifted with a special presentation from a former student and classmate, Alyssa Grayson. Alyssa graciously offered the opportunity to peer-mentor the class about the ecology wolves and the important role they play as keystone predators in the balance of nature.

To add to this special event, United States Senator Jack Reed (RI) attended Alyssa’s presentation. Senator Reed is the Chairperson for the Senate’s Subcommittee on the Interior and Environment. He has proven time and time again to be a champion for issues regarding wildlife and habitat preservation. Senator Reed stated that he first heard of Alyssa seven years ago when she contacted him about wolves, and he was excited to be actually meeting her for the first time during her presentation at Wakefield Hills Elementary School. Senator Reed reiterated Alyssa’s theme about the importance of wolves to the environment, and he remarked how touched he was by Alyssa’s strong passion for teaching others about wolf conservation.

The Wolf Conservation Center is so incredibly proud of Alyssa and strongly embraces the participation of children from around the nation because our best hope for a better tomorrow is the next generation!

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Wild Arctic gray wolves (Canis lupus arctos) live primarily in the Arctic, the region located above 67° north latitude. These fascinating creatures are designed by the pressures of nature and are well adapted to survive on the icy landscape.  Ambassador wolf Atka, like his wild counterparts, has two layers of fur: the long guard hairs that form the visible outer layer of of the coat and the soft dense undercoat. The coarse guard hairs determine a wolf’s appearance/color and works like a raincoat, protecting a wolf from rain, snow, and sleet. The insulating undercoat is usually gray in color and keeps the animal comfortable in cold temperatures. Additional adaptations to reduce heat loss include slightly shorter nose, ears, and legs than other gray wolf subspecies, and hair between the pads of his snowshoe-like feet. His fluffy tail can also keep this nose warm and cozy. Thanks to these special features, Arctic wolves can survive in temperatures as low as minus 70° Fahrenheit.

Travel to the remote Canadian Arctic with BBC Two in search of wolves that have never seen people – Watch here.

Watch Atka via LIVE webcam!

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Guest Commentary by Judy Calman, Staff Attorney for New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

Wolf’s Death Shines Light On Abhorrent Justice Department Policy

A wolf was shot and killed in Utah on December 28th. It was likely an endangered, federally protected wolf named Echo. She was the first wolf documented in the Grand Canyon in over seventy years, but even though the law is on the wolf’s side, this man will never be prosecuted for a crime. Bad policies and weak enforcement of the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) ensure that at least for now, Echo’s death will be ignored by the very agencies charged with her protection.

I’ve always loved ESA. The law is short, passionate, and eloquently considers the big picture of sustainability in a way that, unfortunately, only rarely comes out of Congress.

In the words of Congress itself, the purpose of the ESA is to, “provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved [and] to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species…” (ESA, Section 2 (b)).

Philosophically, I’ve always found this to be far more meaningful than levels of allowable toxins, directions for cleaning up hazardous waste, or the requirements of permits and filters. The ESA recognized that a natural ecosystem as a whole was valuable, and that even individual people could have an impact on a species’ survival. The statute surely does protect the plants and animals themselves, but it also sees the interconnections of those animals and plants with the larger biosphere.

Because of this, in addition to establishing recovery plans and protected habitat, the ESA made “taking” (killing or harming) endangered species a federal crime which can include serious penalties like jail time and steep fines. US Courts have said repeatedly that the ESA is the highest priority for federal agencies (1). The emphasis placed on the importance of this statute by judges, members of Congress, federal agencies and advocates, has always made me feel it was one of the best tools for conservation.

Wolves have been found to be a “keystone” species in their ecosystems, playing a critical role in the biological community’s health. The reintroduction of wolves has always been controversial. Misunderstandings and confusion about the wolves have led to unjustified fear and anger (2). Sometimes, they’ve led to murder. Wolf murder, which according to the ESA, still counts.

For many years illegal wolf killing has been a problem, and it has been unclear how much law enforcement the Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) actually does when wolves are killed, and whether people are actually prosecuted for their actions.

FWS has documented over fifty wolves as having been illegally shot in the past fifteen years just among Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. Another nine dead Mexican wolves have “unknown” listed as their cause of death. There are currently only around eighty three wild Mexican wolves in the United States. A little research shows quickly that despite the high number of wolf kills, and despite often knowing the perpetrator, people are almost never prosecuted for “takes” under the ESA.

The wolves’ deaths were often gruesome, and among the files I’ve read it’s not unusual for the responsible individual to bury the wolf on their property to try to hide it from law enforcement, to attempt destruction of the $2,000 radio transmitters the wolves wear, and to lie to law enforcement about the incident. Out of all the documented Mexican wolf deaths, only one person has ever served time in jail. After that, the steepest punishment was one year of probation and a fine of ten dollars. No one else was even charged with criminal violations. These statistics are similar to those of other wolf populations.

How could this happen? How could a law that aspired to so lofty a goal, that I and others have put so much faith in, have failed so greatly in terms of enforcement?

It turns out, this happened chiefly through a quiet policy change put in place by the US Department of Justice, known as the McKittrick Policy.

Every time a suspect was confronted by FWS law enforcement they consistently stated that they thought the animal they were shooting was a coyote. Theoretically this shouldn’t matter in terms of prosecution, since the ESA doesn’t require knowledge of the species in order to be convicted. It turns out this assumption no longer holds water, although by looking at the statute or at most court cases no one would be able to tell.

Criminal laws contain “elements” that must be met in order for a defendant to be convicted. Often, these include a required mental state. For example, to be convicted of first degree murder, it must be proven that the killing was premeditated; that the defendant thought about it and planned it. If you can’t prove that, a conviction of first degree murder is not possible.

For the first twenty years of the ESA’s history, to convict someone of “taking” an endangered species, the US Attorney was only required to prove that the person acted willfully and that an endangered species had in fact been taken. It was not necessary to prove that the person knew exactly what species it was, or that it was listed on the ESA. This means a “take” is a general, rather than a specific intent crime. That this was the intention of Congress when passing the statute was corroborated by Congressional records.

In the mid-1990’s, the Justice Department prosecuted a man named Chad McKittrick for killing a gray wolf. McKittrick argued that the ESA should be a considered a specific intent crime, and that the government should be required to prove knowledge of the biological identity of the species which was harmed in order to bring charges. In other words, he argued that if the government couldn’t prove he knew the animal was a wolf before he shot it (in his case he claimed he thought the animal was a dog (who goes around shooting dogs?)) it should not be allowed to prosecute him. The courts disagreed, and both the District Court and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his conviction.

Upon preparation for taking the case to the US Supreme Court, however, the Department suddenly stated that they would no longer pursue ESA cases where they could not prove the defendant knew what species they were harming. Essentially, the Department adopted McKittrick’s viewpoint without being ordered to by a court, without going through a rulemaking process, and without a change in position by the Executive Branch. The Justice Department has adhered to this position ever since.

Unfortunately, this policy is not only applied to wolves, but to all endangered species. There have been countless incidents of animals being killed without any repercussions, simply because the person claimed they thought the animal was actually something else. People have claimed they thought grizzly bears were black bears, that they thought condors were vultures, that they thought red wolves were coyotes, that whooping cranes were sandhills. The list goes on.

In 2013, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice to try to reverse the policy. Echo’s death unfortunately underscores this need once again. We have to decide whether it’s worth it to us to heed the ESA’s call of preserving functioning ecosystems. If it is, we need to back up our policies with education, progress, and when necessary, serious commitment to law enforcement.

(1) Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill 437 U.S. 153 (1978)
(2) One of many examples: in 2007, during a House Committee Hearing, US Congressman Steve Pearce stated on the record that nothing is more attractive to a wolf than the sound of a crying baby or a laughing baby, and warned that wolves would snatch babies from their cradles. He then told a fellow Congressman during the hearing that the blood of those children would “be on his hands” for supporting the wolf reintroduction project. See Congressional Record, June 26, 2007, page H7170
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On Dec. 19th U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell put the wolf back on the endangered species list in the Great Lakes region. Howell ruled that the (previous) removal was “arbitrary and capricious” and violated the federal Endangered Species Act.

Now some are warning wildlife advocates, be careful for what you wish for… Speculation that poaching rates will increase finds support in social media chatter – already strife with extreme comments on how wolf detractors will “take matters into their own hands.” Although there have been some who claim Howell is simply a “liberal out east judge” who is ignorant about the species’ recovery in the great lakes region, Howell’s concerns were and are both sound and scientific.

Read more on Steve Meurett’s Writing with Light blog.

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