Conservationists react to wolf plan


Last updated 2/13/2024 at 9:36am

Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The gray wolf continues to be a figure of controversy across the West.

Recently the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced its findings for gray wolves in the Western United States, and its launch of a national "path to support a long term and durable approach to the conservation of gray wolves, to include a process to develop - for the first time - a National Recovery Plan under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for gray wolves in the lower 48 states." The announcement does not make any changes to the legal status of gray wolves in the United States.

A "National Recovery Plan" would appear to be welcome news by wolf activists and conservationists, but in the second paragraph of its announcement, USFWS created backlash by stating "not warranted finding for two petitions to list gray wolves under the ESA in the Northern Rocky Mountains and the Western United States. This finding is not action-forcing; the legal status of gray wolves does not change as a result of this finding."

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society, and other groups had filed legal petitions asking federal officials to intervene.

The USFWS conducted a multi-year comprehensive analysis using modeling that incorporated data from federal, state, and tribal sources, academic institutions, and the public. The model assessed various threats, including human-caused mortality, existing regulatory mechanisms, and disease. The analysis concludes that wolves are not at risk of extinction in the Western United States now or in the foreseeable future.

Gray wolves are listed under the ESA as endangered in 44 states, threatened in Minnesota, and under state jurisdiction in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and portions of eastern Oregon and Washington. Based on the latest data as of the end of 2022, there were approximately 2,797 wolves distributed across at least 286 packs in seven states in the Western United States.

According to USFWS, the population size and widespread distribution contribute to the resiliency and redundancy of wolves in these regions. The population maintains high genetic diversity and connectivity, further supporting their ability to adapt to future changes, they say.

Conservationists who have been trying to restore wolf populations in the U.S. reacted to the decision, protesting that Montana and Idaho have approved more aggressive wolf-killing measures including trapping, snaring, and extended hunting seasons.

In a prepared statement, Susan Holmes, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition, said "We are disappointed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is refusing to hold the states accountable to wolf conservation commitments they made a decade ago."

The rejection of the conservation groups' petitions allows state-sanctioned wolf hunts to continue in Idaho, Montan, and Wyoming.

Sisters-based Adam Bronstein, Oregon director of Western Watersheds Project (WWP), informed The Nugget that they and their "...allies filed a letter of intent to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on February 7 after learning that our petition to list the Northern Rocky Mountain distinct population segment of wolves under the Endangered Species Act was denied."

He added "This litigation has implications here in Oregon where the population segment includes the eastern half of the state. WWP maintains that the decision to deny our petition was not grounded in science and reeks of political interference."

The Wolf Welcome Committee in Sisters said "Continuation of the cruel and unsound wolf management laws in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, coupled with the USFWS set minimum of 750 wolves, could result in the Northern Rockies wolves being brought to the brink of extinction within a very short time.

"Recovery efforts for all wolves, including Oregon's, depend upon healthy populations within the entire lower 48 states. We support a National Recovery Plan to be implemented at the whole species level," they said further.

Congress removed Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in western states in 2011. The Trump administration removed Endangered Species Act protections for wolves across the lower 48 states in 2020.

A federal judge, in 2022, restored those protections across 45 states, but left wolf management to state officials in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and portions of Oregon, Washington, and Utah.

Lawmakers in Montana and Idaho are acting to cull more wolf packs that are blamed for periodic attacks on livestock and reducing deer and elk herds.

In recent months, the states' governors signed into law measures that expanded when, where, and how wolves can be killed. That raised alarm among former wildlife officials and advocacy groups who said increased hunting pressure could cut wolf numbers to unsustainable levels.

Wolves from the Northern Rockies region have continued to expand into new areas of Washington, Oregon, California, and Colorado. This winter, Colorado began reintroducing wolves to more areas of the state under a plan mandated by voters under a narrowly approved 2020 ballot initiative.


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