A gray wolf

The wolf population in Montana held steady compared to 2012.

Gray wolves throughout the continental United States would be removed from the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act — except for the Mexican gray wolves in southwestern states — under a plan announced Friday morning by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The proposal for the lower 48 states is subject to a 90-day comment period, after which the federal agency will evaluate the public input. A final delisting is anticipated in about a year, according to USFWS Director Dan Ashe.

“Our analysis suggests that gray wolves no longer are threatened with extinction and no longer need protection under the Endangered Species Act,” Ashe said. “We believe the recovery of gray wolves is one of the most remarkable successes in the history of the Act.”

While he didn’t know how much money was spent on the gray wolf reintroduction, which began with the release of 66 wolves in Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in the mid-1990s, Ashe estimated that they’ve spent “tens of millions of dollars,” including both federal and state funding, as well as donations from conservation organizations.

The proposal was met with outrage from wolf supporters, who said the move is premature. They argued that gray wolves only occupy between 5 and 10 percent of their historic habitat in the continental United States, and that Friday’s proposal means that wolves will never fully reoccupy prime wolf habitat in the southern Rocky Mountains, California and Northeast, and will hinder ongoing recovery in the Pacific Northwest.

Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said that the Endangered Species Act requires protection for species at risk of extinction “in all or significant portions” of their range.

“This is like kicking a patient out of the hospital when they’re still attached to life-support,” Greenwald said. “Wolves cling to a sliver of their historic habitat in the lower 48 and now the Obama administration wants to arbitrarily declare victory and move on. They need to finish the job that Americans expect, not walk away the first chance they get.

“This proposal is a national disgrace and our wildlife deserve better.”

Recent USFWS review

The USFWS said that a recent comprehensive review, however, determined that the current listing for gray wolves, developed 35 years ago, erroneously included large geographical areas outside the species’ historical range.

Ashe also compared the wolves with bison, which at one time numbered around 75 million and were on the landscape from coast to coast. Today, they number around 500,000, and Ashe said that they’re not listed under the Endangered Species Act because they’re not being threatened with extinction even though they also don’t occupy all of their historic range.

“That’s where we are with wolves today,” Ashe said. “They don’t occupy their historic range, or all of the available habitat. But are they threatened with extinction? The answer pretty clearly is no.”

Still, Sylvia Fallon, a senior scientist and director of the wildlife conservation program with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the move would effectively slam the door on wolf recovery nationwide.

“With continued protection, there’s great potential for them to return to their native range across the West and Northeast,” she said. “By stripping those needed protections, this proposal would leave wolves out in the cold. We urge the agency to take a hard look at the science and reconsider.”

Ashe said that wolves in the U.S. came back from near extirpation after government employees and members of the public poisoned, gassed and trapped them in the early 1900s. Today, officials say at least 1,670 gray wolves roam the Northern Rockies and another 4,430 are in the western Great Lakes Population. Ashe added that another 65,000 wolves are in Canada and Alaska.

Montana is home to about 625 wolves. The state currently is considering allowing hunters and trappers take up to five wolves and expand the season to six and a half months as part of an effort to lower their numbers here.

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune pointed to wolf management in the Northern Rockies as another reason why the delisting proposal is premature.

“We’ve seen the brutal assault on wolves that followed the loss of federal protections in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho,” Brune said. “Increasingly hostile anti-wolf policies by states in charge of ensuring wolves’ survival don’t bode well for the future of this majestic creature.”

Ashe didn’t agree with that assessment, saying that wolf populations continue to thrive and Wyoming, on its own initiative, agreed to scale back the wolf harvest after its first hunting season.

He expects wolves to continue to move south from Canada into the U.S., and continue their expansion into Washington, Oregon and Northern California, plus eventually establish packs in Colorado, Utah and the Dakotas. Delisting wolves nationwide gives those states the flexibility to manage problem animals that prey on livestock or move toward suburban areas.

“If they have livestock depredation, conflicts with suburban communities, the states can manage them more effectively,” Ashe said. “Currently they can’t do that.”

Officials with Washington and Oregon said they’re ready to take on management responsibility.

The move also is supported by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which notes that gray wolves in the Great Lakes and Northern Rockies already are managed by individual states, with the Wyoming population most recently being delisted last summer.

“The restoration of the gray wolf is a conservation success story, and the federal government made the right decision in delisting the species — a decision that is based in sound science and achieves long-term goals for wolf management,” said Whit Fosburgh, the group’s chief executive officer. “The time has come to close the book on federal involvement in management of the gray wolf — and to turn over this management to state wildlife professionals.”

Mexican gray wolves

Federal protections will remain for a small population of Mexican gray wolves in the southwestern United States. Ashe said that this group of about 75 wolves faces its own particular difficulties, including a lack of genetic diversity since their population is based on only seven Mexican gray wolves that remained in the world. The proposed delisting action would allow the USFWS to focus recovery efforts on the Mexican gray wolf population, he added.

Last month, six conservation groups sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, asking her to stop the planned delisting. The letter was signed by the chief executives of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, Endangered Species Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club.

“With today’s proposal, the federal government walks away from wolf recovery before the job is done,” said Doug Honnold, an Earthjustice attorney who has fought in court for wolves in the Northern Rockies for decades. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with ensuring the survival of species and today’s announced proposal is a huge step in the opposite direction.”

The comment period will begin once the proposed rules are published in the Federal Register. Relevant information received will be reviewed and addressed in the USFWS’s final determination on the proposal. Requests for public hearings must be made in writing within 45 days of the publication in the Federal Register.

Information on how to provide comments will be made available in the Federal Register notices and on the Service’s wolf information page at fws.gov/graywolfrecovery062013.html.

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