Gray wolf, © USFWS

Getting Science Right for Wolves

On February 7, 2014, panel members of the independent scientific peer-review committee conducted by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California, Santa Barbara unanimously told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the proposal to strip federal protections for gray wolves across most of the U.S. was “not based on the best available science.” NCEAS had assembled a panel of highly-respected scientists that represented a full range of scientific expertise on wolf genetics and taxonomy, yet even with the panel’s diverse backgrounds, the reviewers unanimously concluded that the science relied upon by the Service was not settled nor the best available.  In addition, they raised several specific criticisms of the Service’s scientific rationale for the delisting proposal, which have major implications for protection of wolves going forward.

Wolf, © Didier J. Lindsey

The panel found that the information used by the FWS to justify the delisting decision was selective, emphasizing certain facts and downplaying those that did not agree with the delisting. Key scientific studies were omitted or interpreted out of context. Some of the major problems identified by the independent reviewers included:

  • The biological classification system used by FWS was outdated and inaccurate. A more suitable framework was available that would have resulted in 5-6 wolf populations or subspecies with ranges that followed ecosystem boundaries.
  • The FWS position that eastern wolves (Canis lycaon) are a distinct species from other gray wolves (Canis lupus) is not a settled issue among scientists. Many experts believe that eastern wolves are a distinct sub-species or population of gray wolf, and not a separate species. Regardless of the status of this ‘eastern’ wolf, gray wolves also may have lived in eastern North America. FWS assumed that gray wolves were absent from the east, but this conclusion was based on a misreading of the science. The existence of an eastern wolf does not rule out the possibility of gray wolves living in the Northeastern U.S.
  • FWS failed to note the genetic, behavioral, and ecological distinctiveness of wolves in the Pacific Northwest. These wolves could represent a distinct subspecies or population.
  • FWS’s proposed historical range for Mexican gray wolves (C. lupus baileyi) was too geographically restricted, failing to account for documented historical presence of Mexican gray wolves in southern Colorado, Utah, and Nebraska.

Together, these problems led the review team to conclude that the wolf delisting proposal was not based on the best available science, which is the statutory threshold for all Endangered Species Act listing and delisting proposals. Although the reviewers were charged to not comment on policy matters, their comments nevertheless lends strong support to what opponents of the delisting proposal have said all along: that the Service’s proposal is based upon selective science, flawed and premature.  Under these circumstances, can the delisting proceed without a more solid foundation in science?

Wolf, © Ron Paul

Click here to send a letter to Secretary Jewell asking her to withdraw the delisting proposal.

Whatever comes next, the independent peer review process showcases the supreme importance of separating endangered species science from undue political influence. Peer review can sometimes be brutally critical of research flaws, but over time the peer review system serves as a means to correct and improve administrative decisions that rely heavily upon scientific research and knowledge. Without even having to step into the policy arena, the NCEAS wolf peer reviewers showed how a scientific consensus can be achieved despite having different disciplinary backgrounds and points of view.

Dan Thornhill, Ph.D., Conservation Scientist
Chris Haney, Ph.D., Chief Scientist

13 Responses to “Getting Science Right for Wolves”

  1. Minnie ( Mini) Richards

    The “Lobo” ( Mexican) wolf is very much a part of Arizona! Mother nature has given them a natural duty as engineers of the wild and we do indeed need them to continue improving our neglected and overgrazed eco- system! The wolf is part of our heritage and the demise of the wolf in America’s PAST is a lesion on the history of Americans! The way we treat our animals, as well as our wild creatures, says a lot about us! This wolf is as much a part of Arizona as the Grand Canyon. We cannot allow a handful of Arizona legislative extremist to exterminate our magnificent wolves that are the most endangered mammal in North America! Other states are using wolves as political pawns also and it’ not only inhumane but it is horrific and it must STOP! Please note that 73% to 75% of Arizona and New Mexico want the wolves left alone to live in their habitats peacefully!

  2. Minnie ( Mini) Richards

    The “Lobo” ( Mexican) wolf is very much a part of Arizona! Mother nature has given them a natural duty as engineers of the wild and we do indeed need them to continue improving our neglected and overgrazed eco- system! The wolf is part of our heritage and the demise of the wolf in America’s PAST is a lesion on the history of Americans! The way we treat our animals, as well as our wild creatures, says a lot about us! This wolf is as much a part of Arizona as the Grand Canyon. We cannot allow a handful of Arizona legislative extremist to exterminate our magnificent wolves that are the most endangered mammal in North America! Other states are using wolves as political pawns also and it’ not only inhumane but it is horrific and it must STOP! Please note that 73% to 75% of Arizona and New Mexico want the wolves left alone to live in their habitats peacefully!

  3. Daine Miller

    Every life is important and especially our wildlife, since they are the ones on a losing end without prayer. The time has come to realize that we are the not wardens of this earth nor are we the controllers of who should live and who should die. Stop thinking of yourself as so mighty and important that you should be able to dictate who has a right to life. Do not make the mistake that you know better, because it is obvious that you don’t!

    Delisting the wolf is wrong!

    We need every living creature alive today so that they will be here tomorrow. We cannot take a chance, stop killing our wildlife!

  4. Tom Grady

    And of course, the biggest omission of all is failing to consider that wolves are highly intelligent and have self-awareness. The FWS has no right to use the worst available option – death – to “control” wolf populations.

    Typically, where there is a imbalance in wildlife populations, humans can be blamed – in over-hunting, habitat destruction, etc. So to be the cause of what the FWS perceives as an imbalance and then to suggest punishing the wolves for it, its morally wrong.

  5. Jen

    We need wolves in the US, they are very intelligent, have emotions, and great socials skills, very caring towards their pack, and one of the most beautiful animals in the world. Why should some greedy politicians and over payed lobbyists decide the fate of these majestic animals. Sad world we live in today really.

  6. Peter

    If we need every living creature alive today then the delisting seems to be the most effective method… Sorry, but it seems odd to use preservation of all life as a reason to not delist one species. It also seems like that a wolves life is valued more than many humans lives?? is it worth it??

  7. Tom

    For MT, WY and ID, the original agreed deal was 15 breeding pair and 150 adults as an experimental population based on ‘best available science.’ Upon attaining that population, USFWS would turn control over to the states. It is now 150 breeding pair and 1500-3000 adults, ten times that determined by ‘best available science.’

    None of that matters to donors to DOW who will never lose a cow, sheep, pet or family member to a wolf pack. If you were to live where hungry wolf packs roam you’d have a different viewpoint.

    A deal is a deal. Let the USFWS live up to their agreement, flaws and all. Let control rest with the states, and deal with them individually.

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