Gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains have been removed from the nation's list of endangered species, signaling a conservation success story. Or the premature end to needed protections. Or both, maybe.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett called it a proud day.
The wolf population in the Northern Rockies has far exceeded its recovery goal and continues to expand its size and range. States, tribes, conservation groups, federal agencies and citizens of both regions can be proud of their roles in this remarkable conservation success story, Scarlett said.
But while the Sierra Club heralded the growing strength of the wolf population as an Endangered Species Act success, it called the de-listing premature. It plans to sue the USFWS, along with other conservation groups, to reverse the decision.
There are currently more than 1,500 wolves and at least 100 breeding pairs in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and federally approved state-level management plans will continue to offer the species a level of protection. The Sierra Club said those plans include eradication efforts, though. Wolves in the southwestern U.S. (and other areas where their population might expand in the future) remain on the federal endangered species list.
Wolves once filled the continent, from Mexico to the Arctic. But hunting led to their eradication by the 1930s, and they only exist today in the Rockies because the government backed a program to release wolves. Because there is little inter-breeding between subpopulations of wolves, the Sierra Club contends, the genetic diversity of the wild population is not strong enough to ensure the species could withstand the outbreak of a new disease, or another threat that could prey upon a common genetic condition.
The decision to remove protections for wolves is premature. We still have a long way to go before wolf populations are sustainable over the long term. This is like declaring victory at mile eighteen in a marathon, said Sierra Club representative Melanie Stein.
Behind the fight is a long history of Endangered Species Act politics. A controversial law, the ESA has come under repeated pressure from conservative lawmakers, who see it as an assault on free enterprise and private property rights, with little evidence of success. For that reason, environmental groups are eager to trumpet success stories, but reluctant to see wildlife lose protected status. The Bush Administration, further, has been roundly and convincingly criticized for politicizing scientific decisions at the Fish and Wildlife Service, leaving a residue of mistrust even though the main political appointee responsible for those controversial decisions has resigned.
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