The deadliest year for Mexican gray wolves

The unique, beautiful landscape of the American southwest echos with the howls of the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in our nation. Mexican gray wolves, or “lobos,” have been the subject of conservation efforts since 1976.1

But 2018 was the deadliest year for Mexican gray wolves since their reintroduction program began.2 If these wolves are going to continue to recover, they need all the support they can get.

With two new U.S. senators in Arizona, it’s a prime time to remind them — and the senators from New Mexico — that their states’ wolves need advocates if they are to survive. Add your name to remind southwestern senators to support Mexican gray wolf recovery in their states.

Wolves Need Us

Five dead Mexican wolves in November brought the year’s mortality count up to a record-breaking 17.3 With only 114 individuals remaining in the wild, every dead wolf is a terrible blow to the population’s health.

From the very beginning, Mexican wolf reintroduction has been plagued by poaching and human interference. Five of the 11 lobos originally released in 1998 were killed, prompting the agency to bring the survivors back into the relative safety of captivity before trying again.4 Just last December, a New Mexico rancher had his grazing permit revoked for trapping a Mexican gray wolf and hitting it with a shovel.5

History, both distant and recent, shows that Mexican gray wolves need our help.And it was former Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake who pushed strongly for Mexican gray wolves to lose their protections last year — so it’s important that his successors start off their tenure on the right foot with regard to these irreplaceable animals.6

Tell the senators from New Mexico and Arizona to protect the Mexican gray wolves that roam the southwestern U.S.

Your voice is a powerful tool for wolf conservation. Tens of thousands of Environmental Action supporters have spoken up for wolves of all kinds every time they’ve come under threat — and we’ve seen great results. We’ve preserved Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves. We spoke up together to ensure the safety of the last 35 wild red wolves.

It’s time to raise our voices to win that same safety for Mexican gray wolves. They’re a unique and beautiful part of our nation’s ecology. They can’t go overlooked.

Let’s ensure that the senators from southwestern states don’t forget their responsibility to protect their states’ irreplaceable wildlife.

Thank you for standing with wolves,

The Environmental Action team

1. “What is a Mexican Wolf?” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, August 1, 2018.
2. Susan Montoya Bryan, “A Record Number of Mexican Gray Wolves Were Found Dead in 2018 Imperiling Conservation Efforts,” Associated Press, December 13, 2018.
3. “Mexican Wolf Recovery Program Monthly Update,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, November 2018.
4. Susan Montoya Bryan, “A Record Number of Mexican Gray Wolves Were Found Dead in 2018 Imperiling Conservation Efforts,” Associated Press, December 13, 2018.
5. Alex Devoid, “Forest Service moves to revoke rancher’s grazing permit for trapping, hitting endangered wolf,” Arizona Republic, December 17, 2018.
6. Brandon Loomis, “100 wolves enough? Jeff Flake wants to remove federal protections for Mexican gray wolves,” AZ Central, January 8, 2018.

Mexican wolf count indicates that true recovery is distant

  APR 8, 2019

Commentary: Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed that 131 Mexican gray wolves survive in the wilds of southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. The annual count shows a small increase from last year’s count of 114. The Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team deployed in February and found at least 64 wolves in Arizona and 67 wolves in New Mexico. The population is divided into 32 known packs along with a number of solo wolves. The relatively slow growth of the population is not surprising, given extraordinarily high Mexican wolf mortalities in 2018 and political sideboards too narrowly constraining the recovery strategy for the endangered species.

“Until the illegal killings are stopped and the gene pool is supplemented by the release of bonded adult pairs with pups, we can expect the same slow growth,” said Christopher Smith, southern Rockies wildlife advocate for WildEarth Guardians. “My hope is that the state of New Mexico exemplifies new leadership in aiding the recovery of our iconic lobo—a proactive role by the Department of Game and Fish and the banning of traps in the Mexican wolf recovery area are good ways to start.”

A deeply flawed “recovery” plan released by the Trump administration in November 2017 and the looming threat of an anti-wildlife border wall increase the risk of extinction for the genetically fragile wild population.

“Trump’s border wall poses a huge threat to the Mexican gray wolf. Our population of Mexican wolves in the U.S. simply does not have enough genetic diversity to be healthy over time,” said Amanda Munro, field organizer for Southwest Environmental Center. “Genetic exchange with populations in Mexico is key to the long-term survival of our wolves. No matter if it’s made of concrete or steel, or if it’s called a wall or a fence, a border wall would make that genetic exchange impossible. It would separate the Mexico and U.S. populations forever, and increase the risk of our lobo going locally extinct.”

Mexican gray wolves continue to suffer from illegal killings that have resulted in very few limited enforcement actions. There were 21 documented wolf mortalities in 2018, the highest number since the recovery program began in 1998. Many mortalities remain unexplained, but human-caused mortalities persist as the biggest threat to recovery. In New Mexico, at least 5 lobos have been caught in traps since November 2018. One endangered wolf died and another lost a leg. The New Mexico legislature failed to pass House Bill 366, which would have banned trapping on public land in the state.

The current recovery plan relies solely on cross-fostering wolf pups into wild dens. Evidence suggests that this strategy alone is insufficient to effectively increase genetic diversity. Due to political pressure, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not plan to release any adult wolves into the wild. The best available science suggests that releasing well-bonded adult pairs with pups is the most effective way to increase genetic diversity and speed recovery efforts.

“We desperately need to release more Mexican wolves from the captive population into the wild to both increase numbers on the ground and allow essential genes to contribute to the wild population,” said Kelly Nokes, a wildlife attorney for the Western Environmental Law Center. “This critically imperiled species is relying on us to bring them back from the brink of extinction.”


The lobo, or Mexican wolf, is the smallest, most genetically distinct, and one of the rarest subspecies of gray wolf. The species was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1978, but recovery efforts have largely foundered because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to implement scientifically recommended recovery actions.

Although lobos once widely roamed across the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, the Mexican wolf was purposefully eradicated from the U.S. on behalf of American livestock, hunting, and trapping interests. Recognizing the Mexican gray wolf’s extreme risk of extinction, the Service listed it on the federal endangered species list in 1976.

In 1998, after the few remaining wolves were put into captivity in an attempt to save the species, the Service released 11 Mexican wolves to a small area on the border of Arizona and New Mexico now known as the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area. The program has limped along ever since, with illegal killings and sanctioned removals subverting recovery.

Mexican wolves are at tremendous risk due to their small population size, limited gene pool, threats from trapping, Wildlife Services’ activities, and illegal killings.

Wolves back in Netherlands after 140 years

The Netherlands has its first resident wolf population in 140 years, according to ecologists.

Wolves were hunted out of many European countries over a century ago but have gradually been migrating back across the continental mainland.

Occasional wolf sightings have been made in the Netherlands since 2015.

But these animals were previously thought to be animals that had crossed over temporarily from Germany and would subsequently return there.

Ecologists from campaign groups FreeNature and Wolven in Nederland have been tracking two females in the Veluwe area, collecting wolf prints and scat (droppings) from which they can identify DNA.

“It’s like Tinder,” said ecologist Mirte Kruit, “it can say if it’s a male or female, are they single and looking for a mate and [tell you] about their family.”

They’ve told BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth that their data now confirms one of the females has stayed continuously for six months and can now be considered “established”.

A male has also been seen in the area so the first Dutch wolf pack could be months away. They are still collecting data on the second female.

Controversial return

Wolves are controversial, however. In France, since returning from Italy in 1992, their population has grown rapidly and sheep and goat farmers say they’re suffering rising attacks, with around 12,000 incidents reported.

Farmers can receive compensation if they have protection measures in place, like electric fences or guard dogs, but many are still angry about the damage caused to the flock.

The French Government formed a cohabitation plan and in February last year set a target wolf population of 500 by 2023. However its thought this number may be reached or surpassed by this Winter and it’s proposing to increase the cull rate from 12% to 17% if that’s confirmed.

Wolves are protected under the Berne convention and can only be killed under specific circumstances.

Costing the Earth presenter Tom Heap travelled to Alpes de Haute Provence to meet some of those affected. The region has 22 wolf packs – the largest of any region – and last year the region saw 700 attacks.

Farmer Simon Merveille said he witnessed one of his goats being eaten by wolves.

“I was astonished because when I fired a warning shot they just stayed looking at me – they did not leave,” he explained.

Mr Merveille is happy for wolves to remain in France but believes farmers must be allowed to kill them when they attack livestock.

Andre Maurelle and Ingrid Briclot, who also farm in the region, saw three wolves killing five of their sheep and taking a sixth.

They have now installed 12km of electric fences and have an apprentice shepherd, Mady, who is used to guarding cattle from lions and snakes in Mali.

“We have to learn to cohabit,” said Mr Maurelle.

Back in Holland, Wolven in Nederland have been working since 2008 to prepare the Dutch people for this very moment – the return of the wolf to the country.

Ecologist Roeland Vermeulen says settled wolves are more likely to eat deer or wild boar. Sheep, on the other hand, are “like junk food”, taken by roaming wolves or those less experienced at hunting.

He thinks the Netherlands has room for 22 packs – each of 5-8 wolves. Whether the country can learn from others and find a suitable balance will become apparent in the years to come.

Costing the Earth: The Wolf is Back is on BBC Sounds and on Radio 4 tomorrow at 9pm BST.

WDFW gives update on latest wolf numbers, including new pack in Western Washington, but not all are thrilled by count

Sat., April 6, 2019, 5 a.m.

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The male member of the new Diobsud Creek pack in Skagit County. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife / Courtesy)

Washington’s wolf population continued to grow in 2018, with a pack documented west of the Cascade crest for the first time.

A minimum of 126 wolves, 27 packs and 15 breeding pairs were counted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife during their annual winter survey.

The population increased 3 percent from last year, a lower growth rate than previous years. But as wolves fill the habitat in northeast Washington, Ben Maletzke, WDFW statewide wolf specialist, said that overall population growth will slow.

“The number of wolves isn’t going to significantly change in that area (northeast) probably for the foreseeable future,” he said.

The next big jump in wolf numbers will come when more packs establish themselves in the western portion of the state.

Agency staff presented the wolf report to the WDFW Commission, a governor-appointed supervisory body, Friday in Olympia.

The big news was the pack west of the Cascades.

A single male, originally captured in Skagit County in 2016, traveled with a female wolf through the winter in the North Cascades meeting the state’s criteria for the formation of a pack. Biologists named the pack the Diobsud Pack.

Biologist also confirmed the presence of wolves in the south Cascades, although no pack activity has been documented yet.

In 2017, there were a minimum of 122 wolves, 22 packs and 14 successful breeding pairs documented statewide.

Wolf numbers grew despite the fact that in 2018 six wolves were killed legally by tribal hunters, four were killed by WDFW in response to livestock attacks and two apparent human-caused deaths remain under investigation.

Meanwhile, wolves killed at least 11 cattle and one sheep, and injured an additional 19 cattle and two sheep.

Overall, only five of the 27 known packs were involved in livestock depredations, Maletzke said.

“Eighty-one percent of them are doing good things,” he told the commission.

In an emailed statement, Conservation Northwest called the discovery of a pack west of the Cascades a “milestone” and “indication of the continued recovery of wolves in our state.”

Not everyone was thrilled, though, and some questioned the department’s methodology.

Jake Nelson, a rancher on the Lone Ranch grazing allotment in Ferry County, lost two calves and one cow to wolf attacks last year. He received monetary compensation from the state. He questioned the overall number of wolves and WDFW’s reported number of wolf attacks on livestock.

“I would have to argue with those numbers,” he said.

He knows ranchers who believe they lost 10 or more cattle to wolves in 2018.

Jay Shepherd, a founder of the Northeast Washington Wolf-Cattle Collaborative, agreed that the overall number of wolf depredations seemed low. The WDFW report only lists confirmed depredations, not probable ones.

“It could well be there were 11 confirmed,” he said. “That still seems low. But confirmed and probables combined were through the roof.”

It will only be worse in 2019, Nelson said.

“We have more wolves. We have more confirmed packs now. We have a whole bunch of packs that are habituated cattle killers,” he said. “I look for it to be a lot worse than last year.”

A number of wolf-related bills were brought forward during this year’s legislative session hoping to reduce conflicts in 2019.

A proposal that passed the house and is currently in the Senate would directWDFW to develop different management plans for wolves in different regions of the state, with more support to control wolves in the part of the state where they are rapidly multiplying.

The bill would also direct the state to spend nearly $1 million over the next two years on nonlethal ways to keep wolves from killing livestock in northeast Washington, where the majority of the state’s wolves live.

The numbers reported by WDFW are a minimum count. In 2018, researchers at the University of Washington, using scat-sniffing dogs, said the number of wolves in the state could be closer to 200.

During the commission meeting, staff said the methods used by UW and WDFW are “apples and oranges.”

“There are more wolves out there,” Donny Martorello, the department’s top wolf specialist, told the commission. “We know this is the minimum.”

Wolves are protected by state endangered species rules in the eastern third of the state, while they remain federally protected in the western two-thirds of the state.

According to the state’s wolf recovery plan, wolves can be delisted after 15 successful breeding pairs are documented for three consecutive years, or after officials document 18 breeding pairs in one year.

Under either scenario, the pairs have to be distributed evenly throughout the state’s three wolf management areas.

Meanwhile, two environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against WDFW alleging, among other things, that the agency is not using the latest science to make wolf management decisions and is in violation of the state’s environmental policy act.

Chris Bachman, the wildlife program director at the Spokane-based Lands Council, celebrated the news and said it was an indicator that wolf populations were reaching a healthy level. However, he didn’t go as far as saying that northeast Washington had reached capacity.

He said lethal removal of wolves that have attacked cattle remains an issue. He believes how the National Forest and ranchers interact need to change. Right now, he said, cows are being put into a forest with limited forage, which forces them to disperse and makes them an easier target.

“We need to be changing what we’re doing on the ground with livestock in the forest,” Bachman said after attending Friday’s meeting. “We can ride WDFW all we want about having to go in and lethally remove wolves, but Forest Service policy has to be adjusted.”

Is the gray wolf still endangered? Depends who you ask.

Two gray wolves walk across the snow in Yellowstone National Park. The animals were reintroduced in the region in the 1990s.


The government says wolves are thriving in the lower 48, but some scientists say they still face threats from hunting and habitat fragmentation.

After four decades of intense conservation efforts, it’s finally time to take the gray wolf off the Endangered Species List, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently announced.

“The facts are clear and indisputable—the gray wolf no longer meets the definition of a threatened or endangered species,” David Bernhardt, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, said in an emailed statement.

“Today the wolf is thriving on its vast range, and it is reasonable to conclude it will continue to do so in the future.”

Not so fast, say several scientists.

For one, that definition is up for debate. According to the Endangered Species Act, a plant or animal can be considered endangered when it’s no longer in “danger of extinction throughout all of a significant portion of its range.” (See 12 of our favorite wolf pictures.)

But gray wolves occupy less than 20 percent of their historic U.S. range, notes Jeremy Bruskotter, a social scientist at the Ohio State University who has studied programs to save gray wolves in the United States.

“Does that constitute recovery? It seems like a stretch to suggest that it does,” he says.

“I’ve been watching this for 15 years, and it’s just the same story over and over again,” says Bruskotter, who published a study in 2013 arguing against a failed federal proposal—one of many over the years—to delist the species.

Before Europeans arrived, wolves roamed over nearly every inch of what’s now the U.S. Centuries’ worth of hunting, trapping, and poisoning erased the species from the lower 48 states by the 1930s. In fact, in the early 1900s, veterinarians deliberately infected wolves in the Greater Yellowstone regionwith mange-causing mites.

Today, more than 6,000 gray wolves can be found in fragmented populations across the West and Great Lakes, thanks to a reintroduction program centered in Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s and natural colonization from Canadian packs. (Two other lineages, the Mexican wolf and red wolf, are struggling to survive in small wild populations; neither would be affected by the proposal.)

State of the gray wolves

It’s important to remember that gray wolves have already been delisted in most places that they now occur, says Gavin Shire, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


If the new proposal is passed, Shire says there’d be no change for those areas of the wolf’s range. (Learn about “the most famous wolf in the world.”)

What would change is federal protection for wolves in states like Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, which number between 2,000 to 3,000 animals. Parts of Washington and Oregon would also be affected, as well as areas that wolves are just beginning to colonize, such as California.

Next comes a 60-day period during which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accepts comments from the public. And while that can include anything from classroom letters and editorials, Shire says what they’re really looking for is “scientific information that’s going to help us make the right decision in the end.”

A wolf pack investigates grizzly bear tracks in Yellowstone’s Pelican Valley.


“This is not a scientific determination,” says Brett Hartl, who reviewed the proposal for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s simply an arbitrary policy choice to ignore how much habitat is unoccupied.”

For example, Hartl points to how differently the wildlife service pursued bald eagle conservation.

“We didn’t declare them recovered until they were found in every state, and probably at a level even higher than pre-European contact,” he says.

‘An environment of persecution’

It was always part of the plan to return control to the states once recovery goals were met, says Carter Niemeyer, a retired biologist who was the wildlife service’s wolf recovery manager for Idaho.

For the Northern Rockies wolf population in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, goals included maintaining populations in each state of at least 300 wolves, with 30 breeding pairs, for three years.

The problem, says Niemeyer, is that states like his native Idaho now view any individual wolves beyond those goals as “excess baggage” that can be gotten rid of with hunting and trapping.

“Those were supposed to be minimums,” he says. “We don’t manage bears that way, and we don’t manage mountain lions that way, so why do we persecute wolves this way?”

WOLVES 101With their piercing looks and spine-tingling howls, wolves inspire both adoration and controversy around the world. Find out how many wolf species exist, the characteristics that make each wolf’s howl unique, and how the wolf population in the continental United States nearly became extinct.

Many ranchers, farmers, and other landowners have been heavily opposed to reintroducing wolves, mostly due to the potential for livestock predation. Livestock owners receive compensation for any animals killed by wolves, and sometimes the wolves themselves are killed or relocated. It’s also legal to hunt and trap wolves across many western states.

One hunting organization, known as the Foundation for Wildlife Management, has even been offering cash rewards of up to $1,000 for trappers who target wolves in Idaho.

All of this just points to a growing anti-wolf sentiment, says Niemeyer. (Read why Americans are so divided over saving wolves.)

“I’ve been part of the recovery effort since the beginning, and I just hate to see it end in an environment of persecution again,” says Niemeyer, who also wrote the books Wolfer and Wolf Land.

How many wolves do we need?

Others support delisting, such as Neil Anderson, wildlife program manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“One of the more significant aspects of state management of wildlife, including wolves, is it gives the local public more ownership and a voice in managing these species,” he says.

Even still, Anderson admits that wolves remain a controversial species.

“Perhaps more than any other large carnivore, there seems to be more of a gap between those that want no restrictions of wolf numbers and those that want as few as possible,” says Anderson. (See unique pictures of wolves taken in Yellowstone.)

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks just announced that its annual hunting and trapping season produced 315 wolf kills. The harvest represents nearly 40 percent of the state’s estimated population of 850 wolves.

That kind of hunting probably won’t drive wolves back to extinction, says Bruskotter, but it also stands in the way of further wolf recovery.

He says the new proposal would end up creating pockets of wolf populations in the wild, instead of restoring self-sustaining populations of the predators across their former range.

At the end of the day, “we’re arguing about the scope of what recovery for an endangered species will look like,” says Bruskotter.

Newhouse praises U.S. Fish and Wildlife proposal to delist gray wolf

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-WA) released the following statement after U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced that FWS will soon propose a rule to delist the gray wolf in the lower 48 states and return management of the species back to the states and tribes.

FWS intends to publish the proposed rule in the Federal Register in the coming days, opening a public comment period on the proposal.

“The best available science shows that the gray wolf has successfully recovered from the danger of extinction and no longer requires federal protection,” said Rep. Newhouse. “We can see in Washington state that the wolf population is growing quickly while being effectively managed by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife in the eastern third of the state. I applaud the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s for moving forward with a proposal to delist the wolf in the lower 48 states in order to return management to the states.”

Rep. Newhouse was an original cosponsor of H.R. 6784, the Manage Our Wolves Act, which the House passed on November 16, 2018.

Trump Administration Seeks To Take Gray Wolf Off Endangered Species List

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will propose lifting protections on the gray wolf, seen here in 2008. The species’ status under the Endangered Species Act has been contested for years.

Gary Kramer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/AP

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will seek to end federal protections for the gray wolf throughout the lower 48 states, Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced Wednesday.

In a statement, the Fish and Wildlife Service said it will propose a rule to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list and “return management of the species to the states and tribes.” That means states would be able to make their own rules about hunting and culling of gray wolf populations.

“Recovery of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one of our nation’s great conservation successes, with the wolf joining other cherished species, such as the bald eagle, that have been brought back from the brink with the help of the ESA,” a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson said in a statement.

The proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register in the coming days. A public comment period will follow.

In 1978, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified the gray wolf as an endangered species throughout the contiguous U.S., except in Minnesota, where the wolf population was classified as threatened. The gray wolf was dropped from the endangered list in Idaho and Montana in 2011. There are now more than 5,000 gray wolves in the Lower 48, up from about 1,000 in 1975, according to The Associated Press.

The protected status of the gray wolf has been contested for years. Many farmers and ranchers see the species as a menace.

There is disagreement about how fully the gray wolf population has recovered. Conservation groups say the gray wolf is found in just a small portion of its former territory.

The Center for Biological Diversity says that gray wolf numbers have only recently recovered in certain regions, and the proposed rule would be dire for their prospects elsewhere. “The proposal will also all but ensure that wolves are not allowed to recover in the Adirondacks, southern Rockies and elsewhere that scientists have identified suitable habitat,” the organization said Wednesday.

Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service now with the Defenders of Wildlife, told the AP that protections were needed to prevent “an all-out war on wolves” in states that would allow them to be hunted.

“We don’t have any confidence that wolves will be managed like other wildlife,” she said. “We’re going to fight this in any way possible.”

The Arctic has lost 2.6 million reindeer over the past 20 years

The Arctic is changing — fast. That’s bad news for reindeer and caribou.

Archive Photos/Getty Images

Warning: This story may be upsetting to children who believe in Santa Claus.

Reindeer are perhaps best recognized by their magnificent antlers, the largest of any deer species in proportion to their bodies. They’re also notable for their epic thousand-mile journeys every year in search of food, in herds of 100,000 or more.

And they’re supremely important to the Arctic ecosystem as a source of food and livelihood for local people, and because of their power to reshape vegetation by grazing.

But the populations of reindeer, a.k.a. caribou, near the North Pole have been declining dramatically in recent years. Since the mid-1990s, the size of reindeer and caribou herds has declined by 56 percent.

That’s a drop from an estimated 4.7 million animals to 2.1 million, a loss of 2.6 million.

“Five herds,” out of 22 monitored “in the Alaska-Canada region, have declined more than 90 percent and show no sign of recovery,” according to the latest Arctic Report Card from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, out Tuesday. “Some herds have all-time record low populations since reliable record keeping began.”

Herds have lost hundreds of thousands of individuals, as measured by aerial photography of herds and counts in areas where caribou give birth. And their declines affect not just the landscape but the people who depend on it. The report explains that the declining number of animals are “a threat to the food security and culture of indigenous people who have depended on the herds.“

Arctic Report Card/NOAA

Big swings in population size aren’t a shock

Reindeer and caribou are the same animal. They are members of the species Rangifer tarandusThe Rangifer tarandus that live in North America are called caribou, and the ones in Europe and Siberia are called reindeer. Mostly they are wild creatures, but sometimes they are domesticated to pull sleds and carriages.

Ecologist Don Russell, the lead author of the report subsection on caribou, says it’s normal for herd sizes to fluctuate greatly. It’s part of a natural cycle: Herds can go from numbers in the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands in just a few decades, and then rebound.

“The fact that these herds are declining shouldn’t be a shock — they do it all the time,” Russell said by phone from the Yukon territory in Canada. “But they’re at such low levels, you start to be concerned. … If we return in 10 years and [their numbers] have gone down further, that would be unprecedented.”

The question now, he says, is “are their numbers so low they can’t recover?”

Climate change means the future of caribou, like that of so many other creatures, is uncertain

The herds have been declining in recent decades due to a complicated mix of factors including hunting, disease, diminished food availability, and climate change, the report explains.

On one hand, you’d think that with climate change, the Arctic would become a more favorable environment for these grazing animals. Longer, warmer summers mean more vegetation for them to nosh on. And according to the Arctic Report Card, the Arctic did grow greener between 1982 and 2017.

But it seems the warmer Arctic summers are also taking a toll on the reindeer. “Warmer summers also have adverse effects through increased drought, flies and parasites, and perhaps heat stress leading to increased susceptibility to pathogens and other stressors,” the report notes. Higher summer temperatures and wintertime freezing rain (as opposed to snow) seem to be correlated with adult caribou mortality.

Warmer summers have also meant that diseases, long locked in the Arctic permafrost, may thaw and spread among herds, though scientists aren’t completely sure how much of an impact this is having.

And warmer winters can hurt them too. When it rains in the Arctic, as opposed to snow, it can freeze over into ice. That makes it harder for the caribou to walk, and to eat. In 2013, 61,000 (61,000!) reindeer died of starvation in Russia due to excess ice. Currently, a lack of snow in Sweden is impeding reindeer migrations there.

As the climate warms, and as freezing rain replaces snow in the far north, this threat may increase.

Animal populations are shrinking worldwide

The change in caribou numbers also looks concerning when you factor in what’s happening to wildlife around the world.

In October, WWF, the international wildlife conservation nonprofit, released its biennial Living Planet Report, a global assessment of the health of animal populations all over the world. The topline finding: The average vertebrate (birds, fish, mammals, amphibians) population has declined 60 percent since 1970.

That eye-popping figure — a 60 percent decline in average populations — is not the same as saying the world has lost 60 percent of its animals. But most populations of animals, like particular herds, or schools of fish, have seen declining numbers.

There’s a bigger global story here that we must reckon with: Humans are a small part of the living world, yet we have an outsize impact on it. The WWF report stresses that wildlife faces multiple threats — climate change, habitat loss, pollution, hunting, and invasive species — which all trace back to us and our insatiable consumption patterns.

What we lose if we lose the caribou

Caribou don’t have the ability to fly. (Sorry, kids. Though, if you’re reading a science news article, you probably know this by now.) But they’re hugely important to the Arctic ecosystem as a source of food for predators like wolves and biting flies. “A lot of the ecosystem components are riding on their backs,” Russell says.

Moreover, they’re central to the traditions of indigenous people in the Arctic, like the Sami, as a source of food and clothing. “If you look at the [top] Northern resources, that shape the culture of northern communities and aboriginal people, what they have in common is caribou and or wild reindeer, no matter where they are in the circumpolar North,” he says.

The takeaway is that the Arctic landscape is changing — and it’s changing more dramatically than anywhere on the Earth. The temperature increase in the Arctic just since 2014, the report card also finds, “is unlike any other period on record.” And it’s not yet clear if the caribou can change and adapt with it.

Trump administration appeals ruling that blocked grizzly bear hunts around Yellowstone

When the ruling came down in October, Wyoming and Idaho were on the cusp of hosting the first, public grizzly bear hunts in the Lower 48 U.S. states since 1991.
Image: Grizzly bear

A grizzly bear cub searches for fallen fruit beneath an apple tree a few miles from the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Montana on Sept. 25, 2013.Alan Rogers / The Casper Star-Tribune via AP

By Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. — U.S. government attorneys filed notice Friday that they are appealing a court ruling that blocked the first public hunts of grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies in decades.

The appeal challenges a judge’s ruling that restored threatened species protections for more than 700 bears in and around Yellowstone National Park.

Protections for the animals had been removed in 2017. When the ruling from U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen came down in October, Wyoming and Idaho were on the cusp of hosting their first public hunts for grizzly bears in the Lower 48 U.S. states since 1991.

Federal biologists contend Yellowstone-area grizzlies have made a full recovery after a decades-long restoration effort. They want to turn over management of the animals to state wildlife agencies that say hunting is one way to better address rising numbers of bear attacks on livestock.

But wildlife advocates and the Crow Indian Tribe successfully sued to stop the hunts. Their attorneys persuaded Christensen that despite the recovery of bears in Yellowstone, the species remains in peril elsewhere because of continued threats from climate change and habitat loss.

The Yellowstone population has rebounded from just 136 animals when they were granted federal protections in 1975.

Grizzlies in recent years have returned to many areas where they were absent for decades. That has meant more dangerous run-ins with people, such as a Wyoming hunting guide who was killed this fall in a grizzly attack.

Christensen’s ruling marked the second time the government has sought to lift protections for Yellowstone bears only to be reversed in court.

The agency initially declared a successful recovery for the Yellowstone population in 2007. But a federal judge ordered protections to remain while wildlife officials studied whether the decline of a major food source — whitebark pine seeds — could threaten the bears’ survival.

The Fish and Wildlife Service concluded last year it had addressed that and all other threats.

There was speculation the agency would not appeal the latest ruling and instead draft a new proposal to get the animal off the threatened list.

That possibility was raised by the agency’s grizzly bear recovery coordinator during a meeting last month with Wyoming state lawmakers, according to the Powell Tribune.

Friday’s appeal signals that at least for now the court battle over grizzlies will grind on.

But Andrea Santarsiere with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the case before Christensen, said the government still has the option in coming months to dismiss the case.

“I think Fish and Wildlife should go back to the drawing board and come up with a new plan to actually recover grizzly bears across the West, rather than a piecemeal approach,” she said.

Also pending before the 9th Circuit are appeals from parties that intervened on behalf of the Fish and Wildlife Service. They include the states of Idaho and Wyoming and groups representing hunting interests, gun rights and agriculture.

Cody Wisniewski with the Mountain States Legal Foundation said that if allowed to stand, Christensen’s ruling could make it harder for other species to be taken off the threatened and endangered species list.

“Opinions like this move the goalposts,” he said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jennifer Strickland referred questions about the case to the Department of Justice, which did not provide an on-the-record comment.

Groups threaten to sue unless feds reassess how salmon fishing harms orcas


FILE – In this Aug. 7, 2018, file photo, Southern Resident killer whale J50 and her mother, J16, swim off the west coast of Vancouver Island near Port Renfrew, B.C. The younger whale later died. (Brian Gisborne/Fisheries and Oceans Canada via AP, file)


SEATTLE (AP) — Two conservation groups say the federal government is violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to consider how salmon fishing off the West Coast is affecting endangered killer whales.

The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity and the Washington state-based Wild Fish Conservancy on Tuesday notified President Donald Trump’s administration that they intend to file a lawsuit within 60 days unless officials reevaluate whether the fishing further jeopardizes orcas that frequent the inland waters of the Pacific Northwest.

The population “southern resident” orcas is down to 74 — the lowest number in decades. No calf born in the last three years has survived as the orcas struggle with a dearth of their favored prey, chinook salmon, as well as pollution and vessel noise.

The conservation groups note that commercial and recreational fishing claimed more than 200,000 chinook off the Pacific Coast last year.