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 from much of its historic range in the American West, gray wolves were removed from the list of species protected under the Endangered Species Act in January. In place of federal ESA 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, an ill-conceived hunt during the wolves’ mating season left 216 gray wolves dead — approximately 20% of the entire wolf population in the state — during a three-day slaughter.
Meanwhile, in Montana, a state in which wolves lost ESA protections in 2011, not by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but by an undemocratic congressional rider, the federal delisting emboldened politicians to up unscientific 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 bills expanding the wolf trapping season and allowing snares in an effort to further decimate wolves.
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 companion animals, were caught in traps. Montana’s pending laws to incentivize and further enable wolf killing 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 12-month period, trappers, hunters, and state and federal agencies killed an astounding 570 wolves, including at least 35 wolf pups as young as four weeks old.
Taken together, the examples of Idaho, Montana, and Wisconsin 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 is why WildEarth Guardians has joined a broad coalition 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.
To let the work of gray wolf recovery go unfinished would be a tragedy. 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, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado have had a few wolf sightings over the past three years, but wolves remain essentially absent from their historical habitat in these states.
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.
Lindsay Larris is wildlife program director at WildEarth Guardians. Learn more at WildEarthGuardians.org.