By Lori Udall
Forty-six years ago, my father Stewart Udall — as Secretary of Interior — issued the first endangered species list under the Endangered Species Preservation Act. His list included such great American icons as the timber wolf, red wolf, bald eagle, grizzly bear, American alligator, and the peregrine falcon.
Also listed as endangered in 1967 was the gray wolf.
Six years later, in December of 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act with overwhelming, bipartisan support. President Richard Nixon promptly signed this landmark wildlife conservation bill into law. In those years, decisions about endangered species listings were founded in science and fact, which is where they should be decided.
2013 marked the fortieth anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. As the years have passed, evidence is overwhelming that the law is highly effective and has saved hundreds of species from extinction. The bald eagle has been restored to most of its original habitat; the peregrine falcon has soared back to recovery and both were taken off the list. The grizzly bear, listed in 1975 as threatened is recovering well in some areas in the west. The American alligator was delisted due to recovery in 1999.
However, the gray wolf is an example of a species that is coming back but has not yet made it back, and yet now is caught in political limbo.
In 2011, Sen. John Tester of Montana (D-Mon) and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), under pressure from constituents, introduced a rider to a spending bill that delisted the gray wolf in Montana and Idaho, while the agency charged with protecting the wolf under the Endangered Species Act — Department of Interior — turned a blind eye.
This was the first time in the history of the Endangered Species Act that a single species was delisted through legislation instead of through the scientific study around the species recovery.
That a single species can be delisted through legislation in Congress instead of scientific study of its recovery sets a dangerous precedent for the future of all protected species. Already, other members of Congress are following suit and have introduced amendments to defund recovery for the Utah prairie dog, the greater and Gunnison sage grouse, preventing a listing of prairie chickens, as well as other amendments to weaken the Endangered Species Act.
To add insult to injury, under Secretary Sally Jewell's direction, the Department of Interior is now proposing to delist the gray wolf in the lower 48 states (except the Mexican wolf). Americans have until March 27 to submit their comments. The proposed rule has been challenged by an independent scientific peer review study released on Feb. 7 and done at the request of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The peer review scientists convened by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis disagree with the proposed rule regarding the status of the wolf under the Endangered Species Act.
There is unanimity among the panelists that the proposed rule does not represent the best available science and that the rule is based narrowly on one study that has problematic assertions and conclusions and was not analyzed critically. Moreover, the scientists suggest that the Fish and Wildlife Service was wrong to base its ruling on FWS scientists rather than a broader selection of scientific viewpoints.
Given the positive impact that wolves have on whole ecosystems, Jewell is faced with perhaps one of the most important conservation decisions of her tenure.
It is her turn to make the big decisions for wildlife and wild lands.
My father used to say if you developed a policy the wrong way you would have a big fight on your hands. Well, The Department of Interior certainly has picked a fight! Over a million Americans, and counting, have commented on the wolf delisting and the majority are against it; now top scientists concur. It's time for Secretary Jewell to follow the science, rethink her strategy and finish the work my father and his successors started.
Lori Udall is a program director for the Sacharuna Foundation, which focuses on land and wildlife conservation and indigenous rights. Her father, Stewart Udall, was secretary of the Interior for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.