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Open season for wolves across the lower 48? Time and science will tell

By Carl Safina and Erica Cirino

Gray wolves, and bison, in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Carl Safina

Currently the gray wolf is listed as an endangered species in all states where it exists, except Alaska, which is home to a much larger population. Across the lower 48 states, hunting of gray wolves is illegal, though federal agents kill wolves deemed a danger to human lives and livestock. Usually, this happens after a hungry wolf looking for an easy meal kills a rancher’s cow or sheep.

But wolves outside Alaska may lose their legal protections by the year’s end, rendering them open targets to anyone who wants to kill them: Last week the Associated Press revealed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)—the governing agency tasked with regulating wolf populations across the United States—has recently begun reviewing the conservation status of the gray wolf across the lower 48 as part of the Endangered Species Act.

The big question federal officials are trying to answer is: Have America’s gray wolves—once virtually wiped out by hunters but recently supported by conservation efforts—rebounded enough to make them a nuisance, and thus, fair game for hunters once again by removing them from the Endangered Species List?

“Working closely with our federal, state, tribal and local partners, we will assess the currently listed gray wolf entities in the lower 48 states using the best available scientific information,” says Gavin Shire, FWS chief of public affairs. Shire adds that the federal government will open up a public commenting period if his agency creates a gray wolf delisting proposal.

Gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Carl Safina

FWS proposed delisting gray wolves in all of the lower 48 in 2012, after successfully removing them from the Endangered Species List in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes, allowing hunters to begin killing wolves there. In these regions, gray wolves became plentiful enough to warrant removal from the Endangered Species List, according to FWS. However gray wolves were shortly returned to Endangered Species status in the Western Great Lakes after FWS lost a legal case brought by animal welfare organizations, led by the Humane Society of the United States. The court found FWS made administrative mistakes when making its delisting decision in that region, declaring its decision making “”arbitrary and capricious.”

Shire says FWS vows to “use the best available science in our determination of the wolf’s current status.” If the gray wolf population is found to have recovered past regionally targeted goals across its range. According to FWS, more than 3,700 gray wolves now live across the lower 48 states—from Wyoming to Oregon Idaho to Montana to Wisconsin. While all gray wolves experienced extreme population loss due to hunting persecution during the 20th century, one gray wolf—the Mexican gray wolf—was particularly hard hit. The subspecies went extinct in the wild and was reintroduced over the past few decades into eastern Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. Only about 300 Mexican gray wolves roam today.

Gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Carl Safina

While the federal government equates the surpassing of gray wolf recovery goals to a green light for hunting, predator conservation advocates say there’s no number of wolves that could ever be enough to merit delisting these large carnivores because they are so ecologically important.

“Wolves are a key engine of evolution for terrestrial ecosystems, helping to hone the instincts and enhance the protections that prey animals develop over generations,” says Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization that supports maintaining the gray wolf’s Endangered Species status. “The population is still small and vulnerable.”

Robinson says the carcasses of animals wolves kill provide food for scavenger animals like bears, bald eagles and badgers. They keep check on populations of grazers, like elk and deer, allowing plant life to thrive in sensitive ecosystems that provide habitat to other animals. Their presence also scares off coyotes and thus increases populations of the species coyotes hunt, like ground-dwelling birds and pronghorn fawns.

Gray wolves share an elk carcass with ravens in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Carl Safina

“We stand to lose these benefits to other animals where wolves are recovering, and we would never experience the enhancement of natural diversity in the habitats where wolves could recover, since delisting would bring a halt to wolf recovery,” Robinson says.
Besides wolves’ role as a key part of natural ecosystems, science tells us that killing predator animals, including wolves, can actually lead to an uptick in livestock deaths. As we have noted in this op-ed for the Cape Cod Times, this is common among social predators like coyotes and wolves after a shakeup in pack dynamics, such as the death a pack member. Wolves are complex social animals who rely on one another to live, and the death of even one member of a pack can reduce the entire pack’s ability to survive. What’s more, effective nonlethal deterrent techniques exist to keep wolves and other predators from killing livestock and interacting with humans.

Will FWS declare it open season for wolves across the lower 48 by the end of the year? Time, and science, will tell.

Originally published to the National Geographic Blog on June 29, 2018.

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