By Christopher Round
On February 12 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal to delist the gray wolf from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and to focus its efforts on the Mexican wolf.
This decision has been fought tooth and nail by the Sierra Club, an environmental organization founded in 1892. The comment period on the proposal was recently extended to March 27. The delisting from the federal register would turn over gray wolf conservation efforts to the states. Environmental groups claim that the delisting would be catastrophic.
In a recent email blast, the Sierra Club claimed that over 1,700 unprotected wolves have been supposedly killed in the last two years. This number was given without a reference though states like Idaho and Montana maintain a hunting season for wolves.
The wolf was delisted in Idaho and Montana by an act of Congress in 2011. According to their departments of fish and wildlife, 471 wolves were killed in both states so far this year.
The effect of delisting the gray wolf, could open up the possibility for expanded hunting opportunities. The expansion of hunting opportunities would threaten to undo decades of work to reestablish gray wolf populations in the lower 48 states. The ranching industry has run into conflict with wolf restoration projects. The ranching industry has tax-supported access to 270 million acres through permits granted by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Portions of the industry have actively supported the delisting of wolves and being able to legally hunt them.
According to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, the gray wolf population in the U.S. is estimated to be approximately between 12,700 to 17,700. Around 5,000 of that population is in the lower 48 states, where wolves are largely extirpated and protected under the Endangered Species Act (the remaining population is in Alaska).
The Department of Fish and Wildlife argues that the gray population in the lower 48 states has grown enough to warrant being delisted. The exception being continued endangered classification for the Mexican gray wolf, which is also classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as critically endangered.
Large predators in trouble
Few animals are as iconic across cultures as the wolf. The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is an apex predator and one of the most ecologically successful mammals on the planet. While worldwide it is a species of least concern for the possibility of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which maintains the widely recognized IUCN Red List of endangered species, in the U.S., the gray wolf has struggled.
During the first half of the twentieth century, a concerted effort by the American government, with backing from ranchers, led to the coordinated obliteration of predator populations in the lower 48 states. This included the gray wolf, which was extirpated (made locally extinct) in many areas.
Efforts over the last 20 years have restored the gray wolf population to parts of its former home range. The most well known example was its reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park.
In 1987 a proposal was made for the reintroduction of a small group of wolves to Yellowstone. In 1991 funds were provided to begin the project. The project was finally signed off in 1994. Wolves were captured in Canada and in 1994, 1995, and 1996, released into Yellowstone.
“Predators are disappearing from our ecosystems at alarming rates because of hunting and fishing pressure and because of human induced changes to their habitats,” Trisha Atwood, a PhD candidate in the Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences in the Faculty of Forestry at UBC told Science Daily in 2013.
Large predators play an important role in ecosystems. They create downward pressure in food webs that keep prey population size in check. Typically each level of a food web keeps the level below it in check. Grass take in sunlight, elk eat grass, and wolves eat elk. Without enough wolves in this hypothetical system, the elk population booms and consumes all of the grass, leaving the remaining elk to starve to death. This is known as a trophic cascade which has serious impacts on everything from carbon sequestration and biogeochemical processes, to invasive species and wildfires.
In a paper in Nature Geoscience, researchers Trisha Atwood et. all found substantially reduced carbon dioxide emissions in the presence of predators in all systems, despite differences in predator type, hydrology, climatic region, ecological zone and level of in situ primary production.
Protecting endangered species
The endangered species act was passed in 1973 through a bipartisan congress and signed into law by Richard Nixon. It defines an endangered species as “any species threatened with extinction in all or a significant part of its range”. It defines a threatened species as; “as species that is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.”
Therefore, threatened species will receive the same protection as endangered species. The decision criteria for listing a species in either list is based on utilization of the species, disease or predation, the present or threatened destruction of the species habitat or range, the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms, and other natural or man-made factors affecting the species’ continued existence. This can all be verified through Section 4(a)(1) of the Endangered Species Act.
The endangered species has been a continued source of controversy politically. Economic consequences are not legally allowed to be considered in the protection of species, though they can be considered when designating critical habitat for their protection. In recent years, republicans have been pressing to overhaul the act.
Their most recent push championed by Representative Norman Hastings would attempt to delegate more authority to the states for species protection. This worries environmental groups as it would expose species protection to well documented state level regulatory problems such as the “downward spiral effect.” This occurs when states become involved in a “race to the bottom” in regulatory protection to appear more attractive to an industry. This is a common problem in pollution regulation.
This downward spiral effect is ultimately what makes the federal delisting of the gray wolf worrisome to environmental groups. Without federal protection under the endangered species act, states with substantial business interest from agriculture and the ranching industry may be more prone to relax protections. This would nullify years of effort that have far reaching positive impacts for the environment.