NWF might back congressional bid to delist Great Lakes wolf

By Phil Taylor | 03/25/2015 12:52 PM EDT

The National Wildlife Federation might support legislation in Congress to delist the gray wolf in the western Great Lakes.

The National Wildlife Federation might support legislation in Congress to delist the gray wolf in the western Great Lakes.

The organization’s state affiliates will vote this weekend on a resolution supporting a "narrow fix" to a federal judge’s decision last December to restore federal protections for wolves in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The resolution, if adopted, would mark a policy shift at one of the nation’s oldest and largest conservation organizations and has drawn some criticism from environmentalists outside NWF.


"Although the National Wildlife Federation has historically opposed such congressional intervention in agency decision-making and judicial review, these are exceptional circumstances, and without congressional intervention the letter and spirit of the Endangered Species Act regarding gray wolf recovery would be permanently thwarted by the courts," the resolution states.

It is one of nine resolutions to be considered at NWF’s annual meeting this weekend in Shepherdstown, W.Va., at the Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center.

NWF resolutions, which are crafted by its 49 state affiliates, "provide the backbone of the conservation work of NWF" and state the organization’s positions on conservation issues, according to an information packet on the meeting.

The wolf resolution, which was submitted by NWF state affiliates Michigan United Conservation Clubs and the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, follows a Dec. 19, 2014, ruling by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to overturn Fish and Wildlife’s decision in 2011 to delist the animals.

The Great Lakes delisting, while backed at the time by NWF, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council, was "predicated on both an untenable reading of the ESA and otherwise flawed findings," the court found.

The NWF resolution states that gray wolf populations in the three states have exceeded recovery targets by a factor of 10. The iconic predators, if left unchecked, will continue to threaten domestic livestock, it states.

Miles Grant, an NWF spokesman, said resolutions are typically "vigorously debated, sometimes modified, and it’s not at all certain yet whether any given resolution will pass or fail."

"As a federation, our affiliates are in control of this process," he said.

But NWF’s national staff has recommended that state delegates endorse the resolution, arguing that the court’s decision — which was the latest in a string of judicial decisions overturning wolf delistings — is creating "an unnecessary but fierce backlash" against the Endangered Species Act at a time when Republicans in Congress are looking to dismantle the law.

"This situation is bad for wolves, people and the Endangered Species Act and is precluding sound management by professional wildlife managers," NWF staff wrote.

"In this exceptional case, NWF supports this resolution calling for a very narrow legislative measure that restores the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting decision in the Great Lakes. Such legislation would be supporting science, scientists and the agency decision — not playing politics with them."

Contentious issue

Yet the resolution has stirred opposition from some wildlife conservationists who feel congressional meddling in ESA issues is a slippery slope. Some wildlife groups are still seething over Congress’ decision in 2011 to legislatively overturn a judge’s decision to reinstate protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho.

"We’re hoping that NWF does not support the resolution," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Congress again stepping in and legislatively removing protections for Great Lakes wolves is also a disaster for the Endangered Species Act, whereby every time a species becomes inconvenient to special interests, Congress meddles in what should be a scientific decision."

Greenwald said gray wolves inhabit less than 10 percent of their historical range and face continued persecution in Wisconsin, which wants to cut its population by half. They have yet to fully recover, he said.

NWF and federal and state wildlife agencies disagree.

In late February, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Wisconsin, and Michigan notified the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit of their plans to appeal the district court ruling, according to the Associated Press. Michigan United Conservation Clubs (MUCC), the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Safari Club International and the Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association also have filed notices of appeal, AP reported.

MUCC in mid-February announced that it supports H.R. 884, a bill by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) that would reinstate FWS delisting rules in the Great Lakes and in Wyoming, where the district court last August invalidated a separate Fish and Wildlife delisting plan.

"Their continued presence on the Endangered Species list, under any designation, makes a mockery of the Endangered Species Act and jeopardizes its integrity to be used for truly endangered species," said a statement last month by Dan Eichinger, MUCC’s executive director.

The proposed NWF resolution does not mention Wyoming wolves and does not endorse any particular bill.

But it follows NWF CEO Collin O’Mara’s push to return the 79-year-old organization to its hook-and-bullet base, even as it continues to advocate for members including bird lovers and gardeners. O’Mara has trimmed NWF’s Washington staff while empowering its field offices and 49 state affiliates (Greenwire, March 3).

NWF delegates this weekend will also consider a resolution urging Congress and the Obama administration to "clarify" ESA to "ensure that there is a clear, durable and enduring process for delisting once the species reaches its recovery goals and adequate management plans are in place to continue the conservation of the species."

Another resolution would support efforts at the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service to keep domestic sheep away from bighorn sheep to minimize the likelihood that domestic herds will infect their wild kin with a pneumonia-like disease that has wiped out many bighorns.