New wolf bills: bad science, bad policy, and bad legislation

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The Endangered Species Act is one of the most powerful -- and most successful -- environmental laws ever enacted. And one of the center-pieces of that success is the gray wolf, whose reintroduction and rebound in the Northern Rocky Mountains has brought a host of ecological and economic benefits to Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Wolves, once almost totally absent from the lower-48, have rebounded in the West and can now also be found in Oregon and Washington (as well as the occasional wanderer in Utah and Colorado).

But wolves have not fully recovered yet.

The best science we have tells us that the current populations -- about 1,700 individuals spread across Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana -- is close, but not quite there. Part of the Act’s strength lies in its insistence that populations be treated as a whole (and not cut up piecemeal between random political boundaries) and that no species, from the littlest insect to the biggest leviathan, be added or removed from the federal endangered species list unless that move is supported by the best scientific information available.

Today, Montana Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester decided to ignore all that. Instead, they introduced a bill that would delist wolves in Montana and Idaho based on existing state management plans that are grossly inadequate and based on deeply flawed recovery targets set by the federal government more than two decades ago. According to these figures, wolves can be considered “recovered” with a population as low as 300 individuals, far lower than science demands.

Not to be outdone, Idaho Senators Mike Crapo and James Risch already introduced a bill that would delist the wolf throughout all of the Northern Rockies, including the fledgling populations in Washington and Oregon, based on the same paltry numbers. In the House, Representative Chet Edwards introduced a bill that goes even further, simply stripping the Endangered Species Act of the ability to ever protect wolves, no matter what their population numbers.

If passed, any of these bills will rip the heart out of the Endangered Species Act and set a terrible precedent for wildlife management generally. The Senators took umbrage with a federal court decision last month that put wolves back on the endangered species list---in DC's charged political atmosphere, will elected representatives simply do an end-run around the judiciary and pass a new law every time there is a decision they don't like? Is this really how we want to make environmental policy? Not based on science, or principled environmental laws, or the judicial process, but instead based on who has the best friends in Congress? What’s going to happen to our natural heritage if every Senator and Congressperson feels empowered to carve out exemptions to the Endangered Species Act for those animals and plants we find it too inconvenient to protect?

I had hoped that Senators Baucus and Tester could be the adults in the room, helping to broker a real solution to the problem of wolf conservation in the Rockies. Instead, they are ignoring the science and trying an end-run around the judicial system.

I think most Americans would rather see Congress do what it can to create jobs, fix our financial mess, or address our energy issues, rather than undermining bedrock environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act.


Photo courtesy National Park Service