If a wolf turns up in Rocky Mountain National Park, it will be protected by the Endangered Species Act. But plans by the Bush administration to remove ESA protection from Yellowstone's wolves could make it incredibly hard for the predators to migrate down to Colorado.
Lynn Scarlett, a deputy secretary at the Interior Department, today announced plans to formally remove wolves in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, central Idaho, Montana, and parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah, from the endangered species list. Under the plan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will post a notice announcing the delisting in the Federal Register on February 27th, and 30 days later the plan will take effect.
"The wolf population in the Northern Rockies has far exceeded its recovery goal and continues to expand its size and range. States, tribes, conservation groups, federal agencies and citizens of both regions can be proud of their roles in this remarkable conservation success story," said Ms. Scarlett, noting that there are currently more than 1,500 wolves and at least 100 breeding pairs in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.
That news sparked an immediate reply from the Natural Resources Defense Council that it would go to court in a bid to halt the delisting.
“Americans will howl with rage when they learn that their government is jeopardizing this iconic animal,” said NRDC’s Louisa Willcox. “Why snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when we’ve made so much progress toward recovering wolves in the Greater Yellowstone region?”
Some scientists -- even the federal government's coordinator for the wolf recovery program -- have voiced varying concerns with the delisting proposal. They contend the plan that would allow the Northern Rockies' wolf population to shrink to just 300 individuals could jeopardize the species in the region. Some also note that the genetic pool of the greater Yellowstone population is isolated, that more than a decade after the park's wolf recovery program began the genetic material is all descended from the initial pairs of wolves put into the park with no infusion from wolf packs in Idaho or northern Montana.
"There is also no observed immigration into Yellowstone National Park from the subpopulation of wolves that have expanded from YNP into Wyoming, making both subpopulations isolated from each other," Robert K. Wayne, a biology professor at UCLA, wrote in commenting on the delisting proposal. "Given continued isolation and the current population level of approximately 170 wolves in YNP, heterozygosity levels will undeniably begin to decrease while inbreeding coefficients increase over the coming decades.
"We estimated that only a much larger population (greater than 600 individuals) of wolves in the GYA would be able to maintain the current levels of genetic diversity."
The bottom line, he said, is that the delisting plan could doom wolves in the greater Yellowstone area.
"Much scientific knowledge has been gained since the original conception of the service's recovery goals in 1987 and 1994 including developments in conservation biology theory, minimum viable population analysis, population genetics and observation data of wolves," the professor wrote. "We have found using genetic techniques that the three recovery populations have less connectivity than expected under the original recovery plan. Consequently, the Service's recovery goals substantially underestimate the number of wolves needed for a genetically healthy and self-sustaining meta-population."
Ed Bangs, who has overseen the wolf recovery program in the Yellowstone area since the mid-1990s, told Science magazine in an article published last week that he thinks the plan's requirement that each of the three states maintains wolf populations of no more than 100 animals is too low.
Fish and Wildlife, he said, "surveyed 80 scientists around the world. Between 75 percent and 80 percent of them thought that this goal was good enough, although I, personally, think it is too low," said Mr. Bangs. "But the broad consensus was that this definition represents a minimum viable population."
While there has been evidence recently that a wolf from Yellowstone might have made it down to Rocky Mountain National Park, if the delisting goes forward the odds of additional wolves making the journey south would be incredibly long. Under the government's proposal, Ms. Willcox tells me, in most of Wyoming outside the Grand Teton-Yellowstone area wolves will encounter a "shoot on sight, free-fire zone."
And not only will the general public in those areas be able to shoot wolves, she says, but the federal government's Wildlife Services arm, whose mission is to "resolve wildlife conflicts and create a balance that allows people and wildlife to coexist peacefully," recently purchased two airplanes for use in aerial predator control in Wyoming.
“This rule does diminish prospects of recovery in Colorado,” says Ms. Willcox. “They may not see wolves (in Colorado) under this delisting plan if it gets under way.”
Concerns voiced by officials in Wyoming and Idaho over wolves revolve largely around livestock predation. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, from 1987 through 2005 wolves in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho combined killed 528 cattle and 1,318 sheep. In return, the Fish and Wildlife Service relocated 117 wolves, while another 396 were killed either by the service or by ranchers.
Also criticizing the planned delisting today was Defenders of Wildlife, an organization that played a role in Yellowstone's wolf recovery program by creating a compensation program for ranchers who lost livestock to wolves.
"We will support delisting of the Northern Rockies wolf when the states establish sustainable management plans that ensure viable, interconnected wolf populations throughout the region," said the group's president, Rodger Schlickeisen. "Unfortunately, the current state plans seem designed to lead only to the dramatic decline and need for quick relisting of the wolf. That's not in anyone's best interest."