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Opinion: Gray wolves still need federal Endangered Species Act protections

A series of recent events in multiple states makes far too clear that gray wolves need our help. Despite abundant scientific data indicating that this keystone species remains largely absent in much of its historic range in the American West, gray wolves were formally removed from the list of animals protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in January of this year.

In place of federal protection, states have already begun enacting new policies and, with them, swift and deeply disturbing reminders of how vulnerable gray wolves remain.

In Wisconsin, just weeks after gray wolves were delisted from the ESA, over 27,000 people applied for an ill-conceived hunt during the wolves’ mating season that, in only three days, left 216 gray wolves dead. Shocked state officials had to call off the hunt prematurely, but not before the three-day slaughter led to 82 percent more wolf deaths than the state had allocated for the entire hunting season.

Meanwhile, in Montana, a state in which wolves lost ESA protections in 2011, not by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but by a political act of Congress, the federal delisting emboldened the state to up its efforts to eliminate wolves from the landscape.

In the past month, the Montana Senate passed a bill allowing for private bounties for dead wolves and the Montana House passed a bill expanding hunting and trapping seasons (and allowing snares) in an effort to further reduce wolf populations. The traps and snares, which often prolong an animal’s death, are indiscriminate and dangerous not only to wolves but also to non-target species.

In a recent six-year period in Montana, for example, at least 350 non-target animals, ranging from mountain lions to pet dogs, were caught in traps. Montana’s recent laws to incentivize and further enable wolf hunting are not simply inhumane, they severely threaten to undo gray wolf recovery efforts and destabilize ecosystems.

 These recent activities follow on the heels of a similarly unsettling example of failed state-level wolf management in Idaho, where wolves have also been delisted since 2011. There, over a recent twelve-month period, trappers, hunters, and state and federal agencies killed an astounding 570 wolves, including at least thirty-five wolf pups as young as four weeks old.

These wolves, some of whom died of hypothermia in traps or were gunned down from helicopters, represented nearly 60% of the total estimated wolf population in the state at the end of 2019. This high numbers of wolf kills are a direct result of the state’s wolf policies: Idaho recently increased the legal limit of wolves an individual can kill in a year to thirty, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game currently funds wolf bounty programs in the state.

 Taken together, the examples of Idaho, Wisconsin, and Montana give us all the evidence we need that state-led management does not ensure the protection and recovery of gray wolves.

 This horrifying slaughter of wolves in just a few states—based not on science, but on fear and hatred for a long-persecuted species—is why WildEarth Guardians has joined a broad coalition of groups across the country to challenge the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to delist wolves in court.

Wolves have not recovered in the American West and the decision to delist them goes against the intent of the ESA, which not only mandates the federal government to forestall the extermination of gray wolves but also, crucially, to promote their full recovery across their entire historic range. Although this law has played a critical role in preventing the wholesale loss of gray wolves in the contiguous United States, its work to ensure their continued survival and recovery, as these recent examples in Montana, Idaho, and Wisconsin make all too clear, is far from finished.

 To let the work of gray wolf recovery go unfinished would be a tragedy hard to tabulate. Gray wolves are a keystone species that play a critical role in the ecological health of their historic range. Being listed under the ESA has allowed gray wolves to begin to rebound in the upper Great Lakes region, yet their recovery there does nothing for the populations of gray wolves throughout the West, where the animals remain largely absent or underpopulated in their historic range. For example, in Oregon and Washington, estimates indicate less than 150 wolves in each state while in Colorado, a location in which wolves roamed across all landscapes in the 1800s through early 1900s, has only reported sightings of a handful of lone wolves in the last two years.

The example of success in the upper Great Lakes region should not be used to dismantle wolf protections, but rather to illustrate the continued need for those protections throughout the country where wolf populations remain extremely vulnerable. Only ongoing federal protections, based on scientific data absent from politics and fearmongering, will guarantee gray wolves a continued and healthy future in this country. To that end, join me in urging the Biden administration to restore Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves.

 Lindsay Larris is Wildlife Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. Learn more at www.WildEarthGuardians.org.