In 2020, the gray wolf lost protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) across 44 of the lower-48 states. The controversial decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was not informed by the best available science. In fact, an independent peer-review panel of scientists found several significant errors with the FWS delisting proposal. In a win for science yesterday, a federal court in California struck down this decision, granting ESA protections to the gray wolf once again.
Will the ruling stick?
The Biden administration could appeal the decision and has not given a clear indication that it will not. Vanessa Kauffman, a spokesperson for FWS, said in an email to The Hill that the administration was “reviewing the decision.” The Biden administration defended the 2020 delisting in February 2021 stating that it was made “using the best scientific and commercial data available.” The statement stands in contrast to the view of scientists who peer-reviewed the agency’s delisting proposal.
Protections for the gray wolf have long been a politicized and controversial issue. In 2011, ESA protections were removed for wolves in the northern Rockies by Congress–the first time ever that the legislative body delisted an endangered species. The scientific community largely agreed that this rollback of protections was not based on the best available science.
Since the delisting of the species in the northern Rockies, interest groups have attempted to delist the protections for the gray wolf across most of the lower 48 states. The FWS submitted a proposal for this delisting in 2013, but an independent peer-review as well as a majority of public comments argued against the proposed delisting and delayed the agency’s decision.
Subsequent attempts to remove protections for the gray wolf have each failed, largely because the scientific consensus has not changed: gray wolves remain endangered and need to be protected.
In their review of yesterday’s federal court decision, the Biden administration needs to think critically about whether the science aligns with delisting protections for the gray wolf. This is especially important because listing and delisting decisions under ESA are legally mandated to be based on the best available science and commercial data. There is no gray area for these decisions–politics must steer clear.
Protections are needed
A major concern of scientists about the 2020 delisting decision was that the hunting and illegal poaching of wolves would decimate populations of the species. These concerns were unfortunately validated after the 2020 decision. Wolf hunting increased sharply in Wisconsin, for example. More than 200 wolves were killed in a span of less than 60 hours during the spring of 2021, far in excess of the state’s quota of 119. Six Ojibwe tribes sued the state for violation of treaty rights. Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, also penned an op-ed expressing support for protections for wolves particularly because of their historical ties and significant meaning to Indigenous peoples.
Ranchers and hunters continue to express concern, especially in Western states, that protections for wolves will increase their populations such that the carnivores will annihilate stocks of prey (e.g., elk, sheep, cows). But there is no scientific evidence that killing predators makes livestock safer. In fact, in some cases it seems that killing predators may actually worsen the problem.
While the gray wolf remains without protections in the northern Rockies, advocate groups, scientists, and Secretary Haaland have all suggested maybe it’s time to bring back protections for that population. Hunting has increased in this area in recent years, particularly in Montana where quota limitations for hunting gray wolves were removed last year. Wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and research is showing they are having a profound and positive impact on its ecosystem. In recent months, more than 20 of these wolves were killed after they left the park’s boundaries.
Biden must listen to the science
The FWS is legally mandated to base delisting decisions solely on the best available science and, in this case, the science is clear: gray wolves still merit endangered species protection, and they play an integral role in stabilizing our country’s ecosystems. Listening to the science in this case means the Biden administration must not appeal yesterday’s federal court decision. The administration also should consider protecting the gray wolves in the northern Rockies area given the recent uptick of deaths there due to hunting.
Science-informed policies protect us all–creatures big and small. We must remember that we are all interconnected. When the existence of a species is threatened, it threatens the health of our ecosystem. And that, in turn, affects our health as well.