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Trump Administration Officially Ends Protections for Gray Wolves Nationwide

Nationwide Delisting Poised to Have Deadly Implications for Wolves

OCTOBER 29, 2020 — The U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced today that the Trump administration is officially stripping federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for gray wolves across the lower 48 states, save for a small Mexican gray wolf population in Arizona and New Mexico.

This decision comes despite robust opposition. In addition to the public’s 1.8 million comments, 86 members of Congress, 100 scientists, 230 businesses, and 367 veterinary professionals all submitted letters to the USFWS opposing the wolf delisting plan.

Even the scientific peer reviews written at the behest of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) expressed significant concerns regarding the scientific integrity of the proposed rule and the biological report on which it was intended to be based. Moreover, the peer review concluded that the proposal contained several scientific errors, omissions, and misinterpretations.

Wolves once ranged across most of North America, a vital part of many varied ecosystems. But by the middle of the 20th century, large-scale, government-funded extermination programs all but eliminated wolves from the Lower 48 states except for a small population in the deep woods of Minnesota.

Over the past several decades, the U.S. has made incredible progress toward recovery, with more than 6000 living in the Lower 48. However, much work remains, and it’s both reckless and inappropriate for USFWS to declare mission accomplished.

For one, USFWS has yet to implement a national recovery plan for wolves, as mandated by the ESA, to ensure wolves’ recovery throughout all or a significant portion of their range.

Instead, USFWS has embraced a museum approach to conservation that relegates wolves to a small fraction of their historic range. USFWS argues that with continued stability of just two regional metapopulations of gray wolves – one in the western Great Lake region and the other in the Northern Rocky Mountain states – the agency can declare wolves fully recovered across all the contiguous U.S., despite leaving close to 90 percent of the gray wolves’ historic range unoccupied by wolves.

Vast swaths of highly suitable habitat still exist in regions where wolves have yet to recover in the Southern Rockies, the Northwest, and the Northeast. The return of wolves reflects more fully functional and wild ecosystems. Still, without ESA protections, the aforementioned regions are slated to remain forever impoverished by reduced biological diversity and impaired ecosystem health.

While delisting wolves is not likely to spell their immediate extinction throughout the Lower 48, losing federal ESA protections will have deadly implications for them.

With federal delisting comes the transfer of management authority from the federal government to the state agencies, most of which have shown little inclination to independently support gray wolf recovery at viable or ecologically effective levels. Moreover, history tells us that when given management authority, legal and liberal wolf control and trophy hunting seasons often become the predominant state management strategy, with little consideration for the wolf’s ecological importance.

We’ve learned from Idaho and Montana, where wolves were delisted in 2011 (via congressional action that sidestepped the scientific process), and Wyoming, where wolves initially stripped of protections in 2012, that without delay, reducing wolf populations is the priority via a heavy-handed kill-on-sight approach to wolf management.

With a history of hostile and extreme anti-wolf policies, these states are, by example, poised to impact wolves far beyond their borders. They offer a glimpse of the future – state-sanctioned trophy hunts and managing wolves for the bare minimum. Without a commitment to support gray wolf recovery at viable or ecologically effective levels, one might question why our nation attempted to recover wolves in the first place.