In a move quickly condemned by conservationists, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today upheld a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove Endangered Species Act protection from thousands of gray wolves, including many in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“The Department of Interior's decision affirms a flawed Bush Administration policy that is unsupported by law or science. When the Bush Administration removed protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies last year, it resulted in the death of over 100 wolves," said Andrew Wetzler, director of the Natural Resource Defense Council's endangered species project.
"We plan to challenge this issue in court to prevent the same thing from happening again in the region,” he said.
In announcing his decision to remove ESA protections from wolves in the western Great Lakes region and in Idaho, Montana, and parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah, Secretary Salazar called the wolf recovery program that was launched in Yellowstone National Park back in 1995 a resounding success.
“The recovery of the gray wolf throughout significant portions of its historic range is one of the great success stories of the Endangered Species Act,” the secretary said. “When it was listed as endangered in 1974, the wolf had almost disappeared from the continental United States. Today, we have more than 5,500 wolves, including more than 1,600 in the Rockies.
“The successful recovery of this species is a stunning example of how the Act can work to keep imperiled animals from sliding into extinction,” he added. “The recovery of the wolf has not been the work of the federal government alone. It has been a long and active partnership including states, tribes, landowners, academic researchers, sportsmen and other conservation groups, the Canadian government and many other partners.”
It was back in February 2008 when Lynn Scarlett, then a deputy to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, announced the government's intention to remove ESA protections from the gray wolf in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
At the time she said that, "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."
Soon thereafter conservation groups sued the government to stop the delisting. In doing so, they argued that a sound recovery program couldn't sustain itself, genetically, without two or three times the estimated 1,500 or so wolves loping about Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.
Last July a federal judge in Montana agreed with the conservationists and issued a preliminary injunction to put a hold on the hunting of wolves until a trial could be held to fully explore the groups' claims that the Interior Department was premature in removing ESA protections from the wolf in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy stated that, "In my view, Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the majority of the claims relied upon in their request for a preliminary injunction. In particular, (1) the Fish & Wildlife Service acted arbitrarily in delisting the wolf despite a lack of evidence of genetic exchange between subpopulations; and (2) it acted arbitrarily and capriciously when it approved Wyoming’s 2007 plan despite the State’s failure to commit to managing for 15 breeding pairs and the plan’s malleable trophy game area.
"In both instances, the Fish & Wildlife Service altered its earlier position without providing a reasoned decision for the change based on identified new information."
But then Fish and Wildlife officials backed off on their planned delisting, saying they didn't clearly lay out how they figured wolves could survive in the ecosystem without ESA protections.
Which brings us to today's news.
According to Interior officials, the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to delist the wolf in Idaho and Montana because those states have approved-wolf management plans in place that will ensure the conservation of the species in the future. At the same time, the agency determined wolves in Wyoming would still be listed under the Act because Wyoming’s current state law and wolf management plan are not sufficient to conserve its portion of northern Rocky Mountain wolf population.
Gray wolves were previously listed as endangered in the lower 48 states, except in Minnesota where they were listed as threatened. The Fish and Wildlife Service oversees three separate recovery programs for the gray wolf; each has its own recovery plan and recovery goals based on the unique characteristics of wolf populations in each geographic area.
Wolves in other parts of the 48 states, including the Southwest wolf population, remain endangered and are not affected by the actions taken today.
Back at NRDC, Mr. Wetzler asked the Interior secretary to reconsider his actions.
“We urge the new secretary of Interior to hit the reset button and look at this issue from a sound, national approach for the species. We are close to creating conditions necessary for a real recovery for wolves; but this is a setback for this goal," the NRDC official said. "We will continue to call for a more productive approach by this administration to establish strong protections for wolves in this region and throughout the United States.”