Update: On Thursday, October 29th the Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the gray wolf across the contiguous US. While the agency says the decision was solely based on the best available science, the scientific community disagrees.
“We’re working hard to have this done by the end of the year and I’d say it’s very imminent,” said Aurelia Skipworth, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), on delisting the gray wolf in August of this year. Skipworth’s comment is unfortunately true – the proposed delisting of the gray wolf sits with the Office of Management Budget and is expected to be released soon. This delisting is an unfortunate and politically driven decision as the best available science provides evidence that the gray wolf’s population is not fully restored throughout its historic range.
Proposal to delist skirts scientific peer-review
Peer-review is the bedrock of publishing scientific results. Scientists write up the results of their study in a paper that is then anonymously reviewed by peers in their field. The review ensures that the questions scientists are asking are addressed by the right methods and that results are interpreted correctly. If one, it only takes one, peer reviewer finds a major fault in your study, and the editor of the journal agrees that the fault is legitimate and should be addressed, then that fault must be addressed before the results can be published.
Five scientists who are experts on gray wolf taxonomy, ecology, and genomics reviewed the FWS’s proposed delisting of the gray wolf last year and found serious issues with the science. The scientists noted some alarming errors such as data being cherry picked, the results of scientific studies being misconstrued, and a lack of understanding about the underlying genetic structure of gray wolf populations. “It looks like they decided to delist and then they compiled all the evidence that they thought supported that decision. It simply doesn’t support the decision,” said Adrian Treves, an environmental studies professor at the University of Wisconsin. Dr. Treves served as one of the five scientists who peer-reviewed the proposed delisting of the gray wolf.
Another one of the peer reviewers, Dr. Carlos Carroll who is an ecologist with the Klamath Center for Conservation Research, wrote that the proposed delisting reflects broader efforts to change ESA regulations. This thought certainly aligns with a recent proposal to redefine “critical habitat” for a threatened or endangered species as only areas that are physically occupied by that species. Such a narrow definition will preclude the FWS from considering protecting foreseeable critical habitat – an issue that was alluded to in the peer review of the proposed gray wolf delisting as the proposal placed significant focus on the wolf’s “current range.” Dr. Carroll noted a similar issue in his review stating, “Even if the Service considers “range” (spatial distribution) only in terms of “current range”, that does not imply that they should only consider population abundance as of the year of the proposed rule, rather than over the foreseeable future.”
If the FWS had taken the peer-review seriously, the only conclusion they could have come to is that they gray wolf needs to remain on the endangered species list. By moving forward with a delisting decision, it is clear that politics are once again trumping scientific evidence.
What can you do?
A prior blog by Dr. Carlos Carroll pointed out many things that scientists and concerned individuals can do to protect the gray wolf. One way to ensure that science remains at the forefront of decision-making is to call your Congressional representatives and ask them to support the Scientific Integrity Act. An upcoming delisting of the gray wolf reflects what we have seen in (unfortunately) huge amounts particularly since 2017 – sidelining of science from important decisions like those made under the Endangered Species Act. We also have identified a number of ways to protect the use of science in decisions made at the Department of Interior, or other agencies, which you can discuss with your current representatives or candidates for those positions.
Decisions made under the Endangered Species Act are legally mandated to be based solely on the best available science. If the FWS moves ahead with delisting the gray wolf, they will be violating the law that they are responsible for implementing. A majority of people in the US strongly favor protecting endangered species – we should continue to call upon our leaders to remind them of our support.