Jason Rylander, Senior Staff Attorney
“There seems to be a tacit assumption that if grizzlies survive in Canada and Alaska, that is good enough. It is not good enough for me…. Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven; one may never get there.”
— A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There
When famed conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote these words in 1948, he might as well have been talking about the gray wolf today. Just as it was imperative to restore grizzly bears to the lower 48 states, we have also worked diligently to restore wolves to their rightful place on the landscape.
But the Obama Administration is now proposing to strip Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for most gray wolves in the lower 48 states, even though there are huge areas of suitable wolf habitat in the west with no wolves at all. That’s not good enough for us. You might get the chance to travel to Idaho or Minnesota to see a wolf, but many people may never get there. And if you live in prime unoccupied wolf habitat in Colorado or Northern California or Utah, you shouldn’t have to go elsewhere to see wolves.
The return of the wolf in the Northern Rockies and the Great Lakes is an incredible success story marred only by the insistence of the Northern Rockies states on aggressive wolf management. But now, on the basis of just these two populations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says its recovery work is done and wants to delist gray wolves everywhere except for the Southwest.
The ESA sets higher recovery standards than that, and we should not permit the Obama Administration to walk away from recovery of wolves with the job half finished. Rather, we will fight tooth and claw to see that this latest plan to shortchange wolf recovery does not succeed. Not just for the sake of wolves, but all species protected under the ESA.
The very premise of the ESA is that “various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation” and that “these species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people” (16 U.S.C. § 1531). The Act requires that species be listed when threatened with extinction in “all or a significant portion” of their range. Species are only to be delisted when, among other things, the original threats to their survival are eliminated and the affected states have adopted adequate safeguards to ensure their continued conservation.
The ESA does not support a selective “museum piece” approach to conservation. Indeed, the framers’ intent was very clearly to restore threatened and endangered species throughout suitable habitat in their historic range—not just in a few isolated pockets.
Many scientists strongly agree that gray wolves have not been recovered throughout a significant portion of their historic range. Last month in anticipation of the Service’s proposal, 16 of the nation’s leading scientists with experience in wolf biology wrote to the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe to protest wolf delisting. In their words:
“The gray wolf has barely begun to recover or is absent from significant portions of its former range where substantial suitable habitat remains. The Service’s draft rule fails to consider science identifying extensive suitable habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rocky Mountains and the Northeast. It also fails to consider the importance of these areas to the long-term survival and recovery of wolves, or the importance of wolves to the ecosystems of these regions.”
Defenders’ policy and legal experts are preparing detailed comments opposing the Fish and Wildlife Service’s gray wolf delisting proposal. The Fish and Wildlife Service is currently taking public comments for 90-days, so you too can weigh in. And if the Obama administration approves this scientifically-flawed and legally deficient proposal, we’ll be back in court once more.
Whether wolves ever get to howl again in Rocky Mountain National Park, or the Olympic peninsula, or the High Sierras of California should not be left entirely up to the interest of particular states. The Endangered Species Act was enacted to protect wildlife in our national interest.