Flawed Flip-Flop on Wolves

Bush Administration changes course again with Endangered Species List re-removal

LIVINGSTON, Mont. (January 14, 2009) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that they will once again remove the gray wolf from the federal endangered species list in the states of Montana and Idaho, as well as the western Great Lakes region. This is the second recent attempt by the Bush Administration to remove legal protections for the species. The previous effort ended in September after the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and 11 other conservation groups won a challenge in federal court. The seemingly piecemeal exclusion of wolves in the state of Wyoming in this new effort undermines efforts to address the needs of wolves and people in the region.

“This move is not viable legally, politically, or biologically,” said Andrew Wetzler, Director of NRDC’s Endangered Species Project. “They have actually come up with a strategy that will anger everyone from ranchers and the states, to the conservation community. This simply gets in the way of finding a real solution.”

With the initial delisting in February 2008, temporary control of wolves moved to state management plans in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Wyoming’s management plan was noted as a problem from the start as wolf hunts began immediately in the state’s “predator zone”, where wolves were allowed to be shot on sight. Rather than dealing with the problem directly, Wyoming’s wolf population was simply excluded from today’s action and left on the Endangered Species List. This move is in clear opposition to previous Department of Interior policy which stated that the wolf population in the region must be considered together and could not be broken up on a state-by-state basis. Documents stating this had been available on the Department’s Web site, including this 2004 letter to the State of Wyoming.

"Wolves don’t read maps," said Dr. Sylvia Fallon, NRDC Staff Scientist whose genetic expertise was central in the initial challenge case. “We agree that Wyoming’s plan is inadequate, but you cannot have protections start and stop at state lines. We are close to having truly appropriate conditions in place to remove these animals from the list; but until the population reaches critical size and shows genetic interchange, these policies are completely counter-productive."

Conservation groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in late April, arguing that the government’s decision to delist the wolves was illegal, and that the population was too small and vulnerable to be healthy in the long-term. The suit also argued that to maintain genetic diversity, wolves needed to be able to move between breeding groups among the Yellowstone, Central Idaho and northern Montana populations. The groups successfully requested the federal court to reinstate Endangered Species Act protections, while considering arguments that delisting the wolf was unlawful. The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society of the United States, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands Project, Western Watersheds Project, and Wildlands Project.

Tens of thousands of gray wolves once roamed North America before being slaughtered and eliminated from 95 percent of their habitat in lower 48 states in the 1930s. The gray wolf was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Recent press reports also show that the population in Yellowstone National Park shrank significantly in 2008, offering further proof of the wolves’ vulnerable status in the region.

The reintroduction of wolves by the federal government 12 years ago has been widely hailed as a major success story. It has measurably improved the natural balance in the Northern Rockies and benefited bird, antelope and elk populations. Many thousands of visitors flock to Yellowstone National Park each year to see and hear wolves in the wild, contributing at least $35 million to the local economy each year, according to some studies.

Check the Switchboard blog for responses from NRDC’s science and legal teams at http://switchboard.nrdc.org/

Broadcast quality wolf video is available to the media at http://nrdc.mediaseed.tv/