The Obama administration is expected to decide soon whether to maintain federal protection for wolves in the lower 48 states, a decision it says will be based on science but which depends largely on how much recovery is enough for the iconic species -- a question science is loath to answer.
In a draft rule leaked months ago, the Interior Department proposed removing Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves everywhere except a small pocket in New Mexico and Arizona, arguing that wolves have mounted a successful recovery in the northern Rockies and western Great Lakes, where they had been nearly extirpated in the early 1900s.
In the past two years, the species was removed from the endangered species list in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, where wolves number nearly 1,700, and Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, where there are more than 4,000 of the animals.
But removing protections in the remaining 42 states has sparked a backlash from environmental groups and some biologists, who argue that the carnivore has yet to return to many parts of the country where it still belongs.
Amid the blowback, the administration told a federal court in late May that its decision had been indefinitely delayed, a move that raised hope among environmentalists that newly confirmed Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was considering shelving the rule.
But that optimism has faded, according to Don Barry, executive vice president at Defenders of Wildlife, who said yesterday he believes the White House has given Interior the green light to officially propose the delisting.
An announcement could come as soon as this week, he said.
Delisting wolves would turn over management to the states, relieving the agency of much of the political burden of balancing wolves with people. It would effectively end two decades of federal recovery efforts, save for a small recovery program in the Southwest.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service is just tired of this thing and ready to wash their hands of it," said Barry, a former FWS attorney who served as assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks in the Clinton administration. "From our perspective, this is declaring victory prematurely."
While wolves have made a swift comeback in the United States since their reintroduction in the 1990s into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, wildlife advocates say wolves still need federal protection to recolonize suitable habitat in the southern Rockies, the Pacific Northwest, California and the Northeast.
Barry said environmental groups were hopeful that Jewell would chart a new course from her predecessor, Ken Salazar, whose hand was forced by Congress to delist wolves in Montana and Idaho.
Instead, Jewell appears to have backed the plan, having met with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) in late May to lobby for his support, Barry said.
Hunters, ranching groups and states are backing the delisting plan, arguing that wolves are fully recovered and that state wildlife agencies are best equipped to prevent the animals from preying on livestock or big-game species like elk and moose.
"The delisting would give state agents more flexibility to deal with problem wolves," said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen's Association. As wolves expand farther west into the state, "we're going to have more conflict. There is no doubt about that."
There's no question that wolves have exceeded recovery plans where they exist -- by more than threefold in the case of the northern Rockies. While disagreement remains over what levels of wolf hunts are sustainable, few believe the species is anywhere near risk of extinction.
The Fish and Wildlife Service must now decide how much wolf recovery is enough, a decision that carries high political stakes.
Scores of lawmakers from both parties have tried to sway the agency in recent months, with Democrats pushing continued federal protections and Republicans favoring state control.
How much of the species' historic range -- which includes Maine and New Hampshire, Colorado's Rocky Mountains, and the Coast and Cascade ranges of the Pacific Northwest -- must be inhabited before the wolf can be considered fully recovered?
Science can't easily answer that question, said Keith Rizzardi, an Endangered Species Act attorney who served in the Department of Justice during the George W. Bush administration.
"This is a values contest, not a science contest," he said.
Protections 'far more expansive' than necessary -- FWS
Once common across the West, wolves were hunted nearly to extinction.
From 1827 to 1859, more than 7,700 wolf pelts were traded in the Cascades of Washington state and British Columbia. Provisional governments in the region authorized bounty hunters, known as "wolfers," to poison large numbers of wolves using strychnine, and Congress in 1915 authorized the extirpation of wolves and other animals that threatened domestic livestock.
While wolf recovery in the northern Rockies was relatively swift, the species has grabbed only a toehold in Washington, Oregon and California and barely sniffed potential habitat in Colorado and Utah.
Still, federal biologists never intended for wolves to reoccupy all of their historic range, FWS said in its draft plan. With the exception of the Southwest, recovery goals have been met.
Wolves were granted blanket protections in 1978 "as an approach of convenience ... rather than an indication of where gray wolves existed or where gray wolf recovery would occur," the draft said.
For example, the gray wolf never lived in parts of the mid-Atlantic and Southeast where it is currently protected, and large parts of the Midwest and Great Plains lack suitable habitat for recovery, it said. In addition, wolves in the Northeast are a distinct population from gray wolves that has long been extirpated and therefore doesn't qualify for federal protections, the agency said.
"The current amorphous listing does not reflect what is necessary or appropriate for wolf recovery under the Act," the draft reads. "It is far more expansive than what we envision for wolf recovery, what is necessary for wolf recovery, and even what is possible for wolf recovery in the contiguous United States and Mexico."
While the draft delisting rule acknowledged that wolves are quickly dispersing into Washington and Oregon, it said those wolves are neither "discrete" from their kin in the northern Rockies and British Columbia nor "significant" enough to warrant protection.
"Rather they constitute the expanding front of large, robust, and recovered wolf populations to the north and east," the agency said. "We are confident that wolves will continue to recolonize the Pacific Northwest regardless of federal protection."
Wolves are currently protected by state endangered species laws in Washington, Oregon and California, the agency noted.
Interior officials have declined to discuss the draft, but they have not denied its authenticity.
"I really have nothing to report at this point on wolves," Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe told Greenwire last week, adding that there is no time frame for a decision.
"There's been no decision to pull back on any proposal," he said. "There has been no such decision."
FWS spokesman Chris Tollefson said yesterday that the robust populations of northern Rockies and Great Lakes wolves reflect "a recovery that is one of the world's great conservation successes."
"Building upon this success, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to evaluate the appropriate management status of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act outside of these recovered population areas, using the latest scientific and taxonomic information," he said. "The draft proposal is clearly a matter that is still under internal review and discussion, and therefore, it is inappropriate for the service to comment at this time."
'Museum approach to conservation'
State protections for wolves can fall victim to the whims of state politics, Barry warned.
He pointed to the example of Montana, where lawmakers in Helena this year passed a bill prohibiting the state's Fish, Wildlife and Parks agency from establishing buffer zones for hunting wolves along the border of Yellowstone National Park, which is home to valuable research packs.
Hunting and trapping in the northern Rockies led to a 7 percent decline in wolf populations in 2012, a drop that did not concern federal officials (Greenwire, April 15).
"All of a sudden, you have this rush by conservative politicians at the state level to show who's more anti-wolf than the next guy," he said.
Moreover, Barry said federal scientists in the past have waited much longer to delist other endangered species, including the bald eagle and American alligator, so that they could inhabit a larger portion of their historic range.
"You've got excellent habitat throughout the West," he said, pointing to places like Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, where he argued wolves would help restore balance to prey species like elk, which currently lack predators.
In the Yellowstone area, wolves have prevented elk herds from overgrazing native plants, leading to regrowth of tree species and songbirds. They are also a prime tourist attraction at the park, generating an estimated $35 million in annual tourism revenue, Defenders of Wildlife said.
Daniel Rohlf, a professor at the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, called FWS's decision to recover wolves only in a small portion of their historic range "a museum approach to conservation."
"Buy a ticket, get a passport," if you want to see an endangered species, he said. "As long as Fish and Wildlife Service says the wolf is here and unlikely to become extinct in the foreseeable future, we can call it good."
Without federal protection in the Pacific Northwest, wolves would only exist under "the good graces of the states of Oregon and Washington," he said.
Rohlf noted that the first purpose of ESA was "to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved." But he said FWS has not considered wolves' contribution to the landscape.
Jewell 'not tone-deaf'
Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said he believes the Obama administration is taking a second look at the delisting plan.
He said the Department of Justice, which is litigating a related lawsuit involving Mexican wolves, is "totally befuddled" over the administration's next move.
He said Interior has received hundreds of thousands of comments opposing the delisting since it was first proposed.
"I think Secretary Salazar was tone-deaf," Greenwald said. "It seems that Secretary Jewell may not be tone-deaf."
In a message to supporters last week, CBD said the agency had "yanked" its plan to delist wolves and urged readers to "mobilize as many people as possible, as fast as possible to convince the new Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, to do the right thing."
"We're reading between the lines a bit here," Greenwald said. "All signals point to this being Jewell listening to all of the opposition to this rule and pulling the plug. We've heard as much from at least one inside source, but true that we don't have official confirmation of such."
But those who support the wolf delisting are calling on Jewell to quickly issue the draft rule.
We "encourage Secretary Jewell to act without delay to remove federal 'protection' of gray wolves nationwide under the Endangered Species Act," said Dustin Van Liew, executive director of the Public Lands Council and director of federal lands for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "It remains well-documented that the states and on-the-ground managers are the most successful at managing wildlife -- not the federal government."
Anna Seidman, director of litigation for Safari Club International, whose members hunt wolves, said wolves have recovered where there is viable habitat.
"The endangered species list was not designed to be a forever place," she said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said there are an estimated 10,000 wolves in Alaska and about 160,000 wolves globally, including populations in Russia, Europe and portions of North Africa. The International Union for Conservation of Nature calls wolves a species of "least concern" globally.
Barry said that's no reason not to protect wolves in the United States. If it were, the United States never would have protected grizzlies or bald eagles, which are prevalent elsewhere, he said.
Field, of the Washington cattlemen's group, said a delisting in his state would give the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife the flexibility it needs to manage wolves consistently throughout the state.
Federal protection was lifted in the eastern third of the state -- which contains two wolf packs -- but not in the western two-thirds, where only straggler wolves have been reported.
Washington state in April passed an emergency rule allowing ranchers, farmers and other pet and livestock owners to kill wolves they see attacking their animals. But "right now, we're only able to remove problem wolves in the eastern third of the state," he said.
Moreover, Washington state has adopted a bold recovery plan for wolves -- it must maintain 15 breeding pairs for at least three years to lift state protections -- meaning protections will remain when, and if, the federal government delists the wolf, he said.
The state's plan compares favorably to the federal government's recovery goals in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, which called for 10 breeding pairs in each state.
No packs have been observed in the federally listed areas of Oregon or California, FWS said.
Reporter John McArdle contributed.
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