The Clock is Ticking on Wildlife and Wild Places

** as seen in the Sierra Borealis: Alaska Report, Sierra Club Alaska Chapter, June 2019 by Susan Hansen**

Without immediate action, more than a million species could face extinction within a few decades, according to a new report by the United Nations.(see endnote).

Keystone species like wolves, grizzly bears and polar bears are on the front lines of this crisis. Without our top predators, whole ecosystems and the endangered animals that depend on them will collapse.

In Yellowstone National Park, wolves were reintro- duced in the 1990s after the last wolf pack in Yellowstone was killed in 1926. With the reintroduction of wolves, the behavior of the herds of elk changed. The elk no longer stayed in one place where they had eaten aspen saplings down to nubbins. Thus the willow and aspen forests returned. Streams returned. And the animals (beavers, fish, frogs and songbirds) who had thrived in these streams and forests returned.

In Alaska, wolves have never been listed under ESA protections. But they have long been persecuted in Alaska through the state’s “predator control” policies, and especially. with the current political appointees by Governor Dunleavy, their future is definitely at risk.

And now, just when we desperately need to go all out to save the planet’s biodiversity, the Trump administration is doing everything it can to wipe out protections for vulnerable species. It has launched an all-out attack on the Endangered Species Act and is gunning to strip protection from gray wolves in the Lower 48.

The Trump Administration via the Department of the Interior and the US Fish & Wildlife Service proposes to remove wolves in the Midwest from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections. Acting Secretary of Interior, David Bernhardt claims that the gray wolf’s recovery in the Lower 48 is a “great conservation success” (March 2019 NPR).

According to Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity, (CBD): “This is not a scientific determination. It’s simply an arbitrary policy choice to ignore how much [potential wolf ] habitat is unoccupied” Currently gray wolves occupy less than ten percent of their historic range. When Europeans first settled in the New World, scientists estimate that two million wolves existed in North America.

US government and state policies on hunting, trapping and poisoning wolves, erased the species from the Lower 48 states by the 1930s. Today approximately 6,000 gray wolves exist in fragmented populations across the West and Great Lakes. The Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico is struggling to exist in very small wild populations. The red wolf which once roamed throughout southeast United State is nearly extinct. (Neither the Mexican gray wolf or the red wolf would be delisted from the Endangered Species Act.)

Gray wolves in the Lower 48 were placed on the ESA list in 1974. In 2011, Congress passed legislation that removed federal gray wolf protections and returned management of the species back to state wildlife agencies in Idaho, Montana, eastern Washington and Oregon, and northern Utah. In 2017, the Fish and Wildlife Service delisted Wyoming’s wolves from Endangered Species Act protections. If this new Administration proposal to delist wolves passes, the wolves in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and parts of Washington and Oregon would lose their ESA protections.

ESA requires recovery of wolves to additional areas in US. The primary purpose of the ESA is to conserve the ecosystems upon which endangered species depend (16 U.S.C. 1531(b).) The Act defines an endangered species as any species in danger of extinction in all or a significant portion of its (historic) range (16 U.S.C. 1532(6).) This means that a species cannot be considered recovered until it is no longer endangered in a significant portion of its range. Wolves remain absent or at very low numbers over significant portions of their historic range–including in the Northeast, southern Rocky Mountains, West Coast and elsewhere (“Making Room for Wolf Recovery: The Case for Maintaining Endangered Species Act Protections for American Wolves” by Amaroq Weiss, Noah Greenwald, Curt Bradley, November 2014 CBD, pp 4-5).

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the gray wolf in the Lower 48 currently occupies less than ten percent of its historic range. Thus the current administration’s proposal to delist gray wolves from the ESA protections and

to allow states to fully manage gray wolves jeopardizes the future of existing wolf populations. Small fragmented wolf populations will be subject to genetic inbreeding. Dispersing wolves will find it nearly impossible to make their way to adjacent states to establish new populations. These dispersing wolves are often young two- year-old males who leave the pack in search of a new territory and a mate.

Following the removal of Endangered Species Act protections in several Lower 48 states, some states (Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, etc.) enacted aggressive hunting and trapping seasons that resulted in thousands of wolves being killed in a short period of time. Montana just announced 315 recent wolf kills–representing 40 percent of the state’s estimated population of 850 wolves. In South Dakota the state passed a law that classifies wolves as “ varmints” in the eastern half of the state. Thus they can be shot on sight. These examples show that state management of wolves has been a political, rather than a science-based endeavor. Amaroq Weiss of CBD states: “To achieve true long- term, sustainable, recovery of the gray wolf, federal protections should be maintained and recovery plans developed, with the goal of restoring connected, resilient, ecologically effective wolf populations wherever suitable wolf habitat exists…” Highly qualified wildlife biologists and other scientists should lead recovery teams to ensure a scientifically and legally defensible recovery strategy.

WHAT YOU CAN DO?

Send a comment on the proposal to delist gray wolves in the Lower 48 by July 15! Submit comments through the Wolf Conservation Center here.

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