A species being removed from the ESA is rare and, in normal circumstances, should be celebrated. It means that a population has recovered enough to no longer require extra protections, which should be considered a good thing. And the grizzly bear has: When the species was listed in the 1970s, it was estimated that a mere 150 existed. Today, there are about 700 individuals.
This decision, however, seems unlikely to be met with applause. As the New York Times reports, environmental organizations are already lining up to sue to stop it. And 125 Native American tribes have banded together to oppose the delisting because they weren’t consulted in the decision-making. Also, any good feelings animal lovers get from the words “conservation success story” are likely to be squashed by the fact that the delisting means the bears could now be hunted. People really don’t like it when charismatic megafauna get killed.
Should the grizzly bear be delisted—or this just yet another awful environmental move by the Trump administration, divorced from science and decency? One political litmus test is to check what the Obama administration thought of the grizzly bear’s fate. In March 2016, Dan Ashe, then the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, defended the delisting. And the recovery numbers do look strong (700 sure sounds small, but Yellowstone grizzlies are a top-of-the-food-chain predator living in a small land mass—what matters more is the populations’ stability, not its size).
But scientists have dramatically different opinions about how to read those numbers. Luke Whelan over at Wired has a good rundown of how the two sides of the debate see the issue. One school of thought says that because the bears’ populations have plateaued, that means they’ve hit the carrying capacity, or the number of animals the habitat can sustain, and are in good shape. Under this logic, delisting makes sense. The counterargument suggests that the carrying capacity is lower than it should be because its habitat and food sources have changed since the bear was listed in the ’70s, primarily due to climate change—which means that the bear needs to stay protected. In fact, most of the environmental groups planning to sue over the move basically want to keep the bear listed because of the threat climate change will increasingly pose. And climate change does pose a threat—warmer temperatures are causing white pine beetles to move further and further into grizzly habitat, killing pine trees and hurting a critical food source.
Who’s right? It’s hard to say definitively—it depends on how you read the science, and how you think the ESA should be applied based on that science. Arguing that climate change is going to pose a threat to an animal and therefore warrants (somewhat) proactive listing is a tough sell—honestly, on a long enough scale, climate change and the cascading food chain and habitat problems could justify listing most animals on the ESA. That would be an interesting precedent to set. It’s also unclear how ESA protection could help address the pine beetle problem. The ESA has limited resources and offers limited protections—indeed, many conservationists think it is actually most successful when wielded as a stick to inspire (or coerce) proactive solutions before a species requires listing, rather than as a real way to solve environmental problems. And through that lens, it’s clear that what the grizzly bear really needs is for climate change to be taken seriously, and minimized. The ESA can’t force that—it’s not equipped to.
When the government is this bad at accepting basic truths, it makes it hard to have faith that their decisions are good ones—even decisions that seem positive or reasonable. It also creates a world in which we have to fight to keep species listed on the ESA because we know we’re not going to do much else to stop climate change from screwing them over in the long run. It is exhausting and demoralizing to live in a world like this.
Although “From the Brink of Oblivion and Back Again” was the title I gave to one of two chapters I devoted to the plight of wolves in my book Exposing the Big Game: Living Targets of a Dying Sport, I still hadn’t fully realized just how apt that title would soon be. At that time, wolves were federally protected and their removal from the Endangered Species List was just someone’s bad idea that had yet to see its dark day. Frankly, I thought we would be a little more evolved as a species by now.
But over and over states have proven themselves unworthy by declaring open seasons on wolves, without regard for the species’ future or for the welfare of individual wolves. Indeed, the ongoing warlike attack on wolves is anything but sporting or humane, with kill methods ranging from traps and snares to aerial hunting, running them down with dogs or luring them in and sniping at entire packs with semi-automatic rifles—depending on a given state’s predilection.
At the same time, many hunters and trappers go out of their way to express their hatred for wolves through horrific acts of overkill. Taking sick pleasure in further degrading their victims by glibly posing in morbid photos of trapped or bloodied wolves, they spread their snuff shots across the internet fishing for praise, while taunting wolf advocates.
For thousands of years, wolves played a central role as keepers of nature’s balance across the American landscape. Wolves are the personification of untamed wilderness; their presence is a sign of an ecosystem relatively intact.
But bigotry toward wolves has thrived across the country since colonial times and wolves have long been the object of unwarranted phobias. Today’s wolf-haters panic at the thought of natural predators competing for “their” trophy “game” animals and loath anything that might threaten their exploitive way of life. They view the federal government as the enemy in their ongoing combat against wilderness, and grasp for local control of species like wolves, who, until recently, were all but extinct in the continental U.S. Far from being their foe however, the federal government has actually been a fervent ally.
The contentious removal of wolves from the federal endangered species list—long before they were truly recovered—was a coldly calculated course set in motion by the Bush Administration, dutifully followed by the Obama Administration and rendered the law of the land through an underhanded act of Congress in 2011. This crooked covenant, conjured up for the sake of ranchers and trophy hunters, left the wolves’ fate in the custody of hostile western states…and fits right in with a centuries-old, historic norm.
In 1630, Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—known for holding the first Thanksgiving Day celebration…and Salem witch hunts—felt biblically impelled and duty-bound to “subdue the earth.” Hence, they were the first to establish a bounty on wolves. Soon the other colonies followed their example and set bounties of their own, and a systematic genocide of wolves in America spread west with the “settling” of the land.
In 1818, Ohio declared a “War of Extermination” against wolves and bears. Iowa began their wolf bounty in 1858; in 1865 and 1869 Wisconsin and Colorado followed suit. State by state wolves were shot, trapped and poisoned to extinction. As the demand for wolf pelts increased, “wolfers” began killing grazers like elk or bison and poisoning the meat as bait, decimating whole packs of unsuspecting canines in one fell swoop.
By 1872, the year President Grant created Yellowstone National Park, 100,000 wolves were being annihilated annually. 5,450 were killed in 1884 in Montana alone, after a wolf bounty was initiated there. By the end of 1886, a total of 10,261 wolves were offered up for bounty (sixteen times Montana’s 2011 population of 653 “recovered” wolves). Wyoming enacted their bounty in 1875 and in 1913 set a penalty of $300 for freeing a wolf from a trap.
Not to be outdone, the US government began a federal poisoning program in 1915 that would finish off the rest of the wolves in the region—including Yellowstone. By 1926 wolves had been completely extirpated from America’s premier national park.
Having no more regard for wolves than those who originally caused their extinctions, willfully-ignorant wolf-haters in the tri-state area of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have not received their reintroduction with open arms but rather with loaded arms, hoping to turn the clock back to the dark ages of centuries past. The posture they assume on the subject of wolves is as warped and ill-informed as any Massachusetts witch hunter’s.
With the wolf population in the tri-state area at only a fraction of its historic sum, the federal government unceremoniously removed them from the endangered species list (and consequently from federal protection) in 2009, casting their “management” (read: re-eradication) into the clutches of eager states that wasted no time implementing wolf hunting seasons. Montana quickly sold 15,603 wolf permits, while their confederates in Idaho snatched up 14,000 permits to hunt the long-tormented canids.
For its part, Wyoming has stubbornly held to a policy mandating that wolves be shot on sight anytime they wander outside Yellowstone, allegedly to safeguard range cattle (who are actually 147 times more likely to fall prey to intestinal parasites). Wolves have killed a grand total of only 26 cows (out of 1.3 million head of cattle in the state). Still, the livestock industry is in control of their wolf management decisions. Though hunters there have killed 74 wolves this season, the state of Wyoming has expanded and extended its season indefinitely, declaring an open, year-round hunt on them. Winter, spring and summertime hunts are particularly harsh since this is when wolves are denning and raising their newborn pups.
Photo by Jim Robertson
On the other side of Yellowstone, the disingenuously but suitably named “Idaho Anti-Wolf Coalition,” backed by a well-funded trophy elk hunting industry, filed and circulated an initiative petition in 2008 calling for the removal of “all” wolves there “by whatever means necessary.” Fortunately, even in the state famous for potatoes, militias and neo-Nazi compounds, they failed to gain enough public support to move forward with their avaricious initiative. Even so, the Idaho government has been quietly carrying out the “whatever means” approach by adding aerial hunting, trapping, snaring and baiting to their wolf devastation arsenal. In just one season, 169 wolves were killed by trophy hunters in Idaho, while trappers there claimed the lives of 76.
It should come as no great jolt that Idaho hunters felt they could get away with asking for the renewed obliteration of an entire species—their governor, “Butch” Otter, publicly proclaimed he hoped to be the first to shoot a wolf as soon as they lost federal ESA protection. Failing that, Otter used his gubernatorial powers to declare his state a “wolf disaster area,” granting local sheriffs’ departments the power to destroy packs whenever they please.
“Meanwhile,” according to Defenders of Wildlife’s president, Jamie Rappaport Clark, “the federal government is sitting idly by as Idaho almost singlehandedly unravels one of our nation’s greatest wildlife conservation success stories. This is totally unheard of—never before has a species climbed its way back from near extinction only to be quickly decimated once again.”
Montana started out seeming to be the sensible state, appearing almost tolerant of wolves. But between their state legislature and their wildlife policy makers, they’ve made an about face and quickly caught up with their neighbors, displaying a total disregard for the public trust doctrine which holds that wildlife, having no owners, are res communes, belonging “in common to all of the citizens.” They’ve recently passed bills barring any protected zones outside Yellowstone Park, while legalizing silencers for wolf hunting and the use of recorded calls to attract wolves, as well as allowing five wolf tags per hunter, 12 years and older. (And a new state bill is proposing lowering the legal age of hunters to nine years old.) Legislators also proposed a cap of 250 on their state wolf population. Last year’s wolf hunt kill totals for Montana were 128 wolves shot to death and 97 killed in traps.
Since Congress stripped wolves of their Endangered Species status, an estimated 1,084 wolves have been killed in the Northern Rockies. Again, that’s ONE THOUSAND AND EIGHTY-FOUR living, breathing, social, intelligent wolves killed by scornful, fearful, vengeful and boastful hunters and trappers, often in the most hideous ways imaginable.
Thanks to a federal judge’s 2010 decision, the wolf was granted a one-year stay of execution. But in 2011 our federal legislators on Capitol Hill attached a rider to a budget bill circumventing that judgment. This serpentine, backbiting end-run around science and public opinion played right into the hands of anti-wolf fanatics in Idaho and Montana and cleared the way for the bloodiest butchery of wolves in almost a century. Case in point: the opening week of Montana’s nascent hunting season on wolves saw sportsmen set up just outside the park boundary gun down every adult in Yellowstone’s well-known and much-loved Cottonwood pack, leaving their dependent pups to starve. In just two years nearly 1,100 wolves have been ruthlessly murdered by hunters and trappers eager to relive the gory glory days of the 1800s.
All this is going on in spite of well-documented proof that wolves are beneficial to a given environment, and despite the fact that the majority of Americans, including most visitors to Yellowstone and the tri-state area, want to see wildlife unmolested. They are not there to hunt—the money they spend reflects their strong interest in the quiet enjoyment of nature.
Biologists studying the Yellowstone ecosystem have found that since their reintroduction to the park, wolves have kept elk herds on the move, thus allowing over-browsed streamside riparian habitats to regenerate. Among the species that rely on a healthy riparian zone—and therefore benefit from the presence of wolves—are moose, trumpeter swans, warblers, wrens, thrushes, beavers, muskrats and the Yellowstone cutthroat trout. Everywhere they’re found, wolves play an important role in maintaining the health of ungulate herds by preying primarily on infirm or diseased animals, ensuring a healthy gene pool. And the remains of their kills provide a welcome relief for hungry scavengers, from bears to ermine to wolverines to bald eagles.
But rather than stepping back and allowing wolves to solve their elk “problem,” “game” “managers” want to reduce the number of both elk and wolves. Their policies are not scientific; they’re downright kill-happy. As the late Canadian naturalist and author, R D Lawrence, stated in his book, In the Presence of Wolves: “Killing for sport, for fur, or to increase a hunter’s success by slaughtering predators is totally abhorrent to me. I deem such behavior to be barbaric…”
The 1996 reintroduction of wolves to the northern Rocky Mountains in Yellowstone and wilderness areas of Central Idaho as mandated by the Endangered Species Act–along with protections against hunting and trapping all too briefly afforded them under the ESA–gave the wolf a temporary reprieve and allowed Nature to reign again over some of her sovereign lands.
Yes, wolves are spreading out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there are more of them; each time they find a given habitat hostile to them, they continue to branch out in search of someplace safer and more hospitable. The total wolf population of the tri-state area has fluctuated, reaching a high of around 2000 individuals. An impressive figure perhaps, unless you consider that 1,089 were killed this year (not including those killed by federal “Wildlife Services” agents); or that 10,261 wolves were destroyed between 1884 and 1886 in Montana alone; or even that 380,000 wolves once roamed the country.
While all this is going on, the Great Lakes states have been racking up a high wolf body count of their own. Wisconsin in particular seems to be bucking for a most merciless award—the cruelties they’ve unleashed on wolves are the stuff of nightmares. And even states, such as South Dakota, that don’t even have wolf populations are hastily re-classifying wolves from the status of protected to “varmint,” in the event that any lost wolf happens by.
With the return of widespread wolf hunting, it will take today’s anti-wolf bigots only a few years to boot this misunderstood embodiment of wilderness back to the brink of oblivion.
As Congress works to finalize its FY18 spending bill to fund the federal government, key protections for animals are under attack.
Some members, beholden to special interests, are attempting to reopen horse slaughter plants in the United States, authorize the killing of thousands of healthy wild horses and burros, strip Endangered Species Act protections for Great Lakes wolves, and repeal a rule to prevent cruel and unjustified methods of killing grizzlies and wolf pups on National Park Service lands in Alaska.
It’s a tired old Washington story: attaching measures that could never pass on their own merits to important spending bills that must be approved frequently, as this one has to be, in order to keep the government running. Every year, it’s the same special interests with the same outrageous proposals, literally seeking to harm millions of animals with a few strokes of the pen or the keyboard. And every year, our program experts and the Humane Society Legislative Fund team dig in to hold the line, keeping a close eye on these harmful riders scattered through the House and Senate versions of the bill, and gearing up to defeat them.
You too can do your part to ensure that these provisions do not pass.
Allowing horse slaughter plants to reopen: While the Senate Agriculture Appropriations bill includes language that would keep horse slaughter plants from operating in the United States, the House Appropriations Committee failed to include this “defund” language, which has been in the annual spending bill for most of the last several years. The defund language effectively bans horse slaughter for human consumption by preventing the U.S. Department of Agriculture from using funds to inspect these facilities. Allowing slaughter plants to open will costs millions of taxpayer dollars each year—a move that is both fiscally irresponsible and in conflict with our values as a nation.
Authorizing the slaughter of thousands of healthy wild horses and burros: The House Interior Appropriations bill contains an amendment to allow the Bureau of Land Management to kill thousands of healthy wild horses and burros. In all but one year since 1994, Congress’s final appropriations bills have included language to prevent this. Thankfully, the Senate bill includes that protective language but the House version is a problem.
Removing ESA protections for gray wolves in the Great Lakes: Both chambers’ versions include language to remove federal Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Further, the provision would bar judicial review of the action. This language overrides a federal appeals court ruling last year that maintained protections for wolves in the western Great Lakes region.
Blocking the implementation of a rule to prevent hunting grizzlies and wolf pups on National Preserves in Alaska: The House bill blocks implementation of a federal rule to prevent inhumane and scientifically unjustified hunting methods on National Preserves—a category of National Park Service land—in Alaska. These practices include luring grizzly bears with bait to shoot them at point-blank distance and killing wolf, black bear, and coyote mothers and their babies at their dens. Last February, Congress repealed a similar rule that protected predators on 76 million acres of National Wildlife Refuges in Alaska. These issues are best left to robust regulatory processes, with input from the public, land managers, and scientific experts, rather than being subjected to the political whims of Congress.
Please act immediately to let your members of Congress know that you want this spending package to protect animals at risk from malicious legislation. Urge them to reject these harmful provisions in the spending bill, and to maintain vital animal welfare protections that most of the American public supports. Remind them that it’s a spending bill, not an opportunity for the defenders of cruelty.
Wolves often harass grizzly bears in the wild, and now they’re challenging bear recovery in the courtroom.
An appeals court ruling in a federal lawsuit challenging how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed Great Lakes gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act list could unravel plans to delist grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
“We had put our final delisting rule out in July and within a week we got the court opinion,” FWS grizzly recovery coordinator Hillary Cooley said during a meeting of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee in Missoula on Tuesday. “The Great Lakes wolves were listed for the entire Lower 48 states, and then they carved out a DPS (Distinct Population Segment) and tried to delist them. That’s what we’ve done with the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, as well, so we thought we should take a look.”
Grizzly bears were listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1975. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee has combined bear experts from the National Park Service, Forest Service, state wildlife agencies and other land managers for more than three decades on the task of removing threats to grizzly bear survival so the bears can be removed from the Endangered Species List.
In August, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed a lower-court ruling blocking the wildlife service’s plan to delist the gray wolf in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin while keeping the species protected in the rest of the continental U.S. The case was Humane Society of the U.S. v. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
In its species recovery plans, the wildlife service often uses distinct population segments to draw boundaries around places a plant or animal depends on. That three-state area was considered the Western Great Lakes DPS for gray wolves.
“The fundamental error in the Service’s decision is that, in evaluating whether gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes region are a ‘distinct’ population segment, the Service failed to address the impact that extraction of the segment would have on the legal status of the remaining wolves in the already-listed species,” the appeals court judges wrote. They added that creating a DPS was a “one-way ratchet” that could increase protections, but not decrease them without additional justification.
“The Service’s power is to designate genuinely discrete population segments; it is not to delist an already-protected species by balkanization,” they added. “The Service cannot circumvent the Endangered Species Act’s explicit delisting standards by driving an existing listing into a recovered sub-group and a leftover group that becomes an orphan to the law. Such a statutory dodge is the essence of arbitrary-and-capricious and ill-reasoned agency action.”Grizzly bear recovery follows a similar pattern. In July, FWS published its final rule delisting the roughly 700 grizzlies in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which is one of six DPS ecosystems the bears inhabit or could inhabit in the Lower 48 states. That action has triggered six lawsuits challenging it to date, several of which use the Western Great Lakes wolf decision in their arguments.
FWS is also working on a delisting rule for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which holds about 1,000 grizzlies in the Rocky Mountains between Missoula and Glacier National Park. But the remaining four ecosystems — the Cabinet-Yaak, Selkirk, Bitterroot and North Cascades — hold only handfuls of bears or none at all.
“The Lower 48 grizzlies were originally listed as all one population,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director for Wildearth Guardians. “If you pull one DPS out, such as the Yellowstone, you have to consider how that affects all the other populations.”
“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said of the agency request. “You can’t fix it by papering it over after the fact. You have to go back and withdraw the rule. It’s a glaring problem and they knew it back then.”
The request is separate from another notice FWS published on Monday, requesting public comment on its “Supplement to the Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan: Habitat-Based Recovery Criteria for the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem.”
The document explains proposed standards for delisting grizzly bears in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem. That final action could take place next summer.
The FWS public comment request runs through January 8, 2018. Comments can be made online through the FWS website.
The status of the red wolf – that reddish-brown canid of the American Southeast that’s about midway in size and habits between a coyote and a grey wolf – has been in flux for decades, and these days it’s up in the air on a number of counts. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is reconsidering its strategy for recovering the animal, among the rarest of the world’s wild dogs, and meanwhile taxonomists continue to debate its position on the Canis family tree.
In light of all that political and scientific murkiness, it’s a pleasure to watch red wolves just doing their thing in the wild. Camera traps maintained by the Wildlands Network conservation group have collected some great video in the heart of the wolf’s precarious stronghold on northeastern North Carolina’s Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula.
Sutherland said the first video showed young wolves or possibly wolf-coyote hybrids, while the other three clips are most likely of the longstanding Milltail Pack.
The red wolf (Wa’ya to the Cherokee) once trotted over most of the American Southeast; where and how the boundaries of its range edged that of the grey wolf is one of many, well, grey areas of canid natural history in pre-Columbian North America. Weighing some 23 to 36 kilograms (50 to 80 lbs), red wolves were historically not only the grizzled chestnut colour that gives them their common name but also frequently black; early naturalists, for example, recognised a “Florida black wolf”.
A red wolf in North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (US Fish & Wildlife Service)
Wade into the taxonomy of the red wolf – and of the genus Canis in North America, for that matter – at your own risk. It’s a fascinating but thorny topic that’s far from settled, and loosely speaking involves about five canines: the Eurasian-evolved grey wolf (which may have colonised North America in multiple waves) and the New World-derived red wolf, Algonquin (aka eastern or Great Lakes) wolf, coyote, and the so-called “eastern coyote” (frequently referred to as a “coywolf”, though mammalogist Roland Kays takes some issue with that).
The species status of the grey wolf and coyote are firmly established; where the others fall in the Canis lineage is less settled, to say the least. A 2012 review concluded the red wolf, Algonquin wolf and coyote are likely relatives with a common ancestor; a 2016 genetic analysis, in turn, proposed red and Algonquin wolves derive from varying degrees of quite recent grey wolf/coyote hybridisation. Yet another assessment from last year, which scrutinised ancient canid remains from the American Southeast, suggested the red wolf may (a) have evolved from prehistoric coyote-wolf interbreeding, or (b) share a forerunner with the coyote.
Taxonomic inquiries such as this could have bearing on how the US government classifies and treats the red wolf as a conservation priority. (The USFWS continues to regard it as its own species.) But as many of the researchers who’ve lately studied red and Algonquin wolf genetics have pointed out, whether these wolves are hybrids, subspecies or distinct species doesn’t detract from their “ecological authenticity” as apex carnivores in eastern North America. (The eastern coyote, too, certainly seems to be filling a significant ecological role in its freshly colonised range.)
As the authors of the 2016 study suggesting either long-ago hybridisation or unique lineage for the red wolf noted, “If red wolves have an ancient hybrid origin, it would not preclude the species from protection, and furthermore, it emphasises the dynamic nature of canid evolution.”
“Whether these wolves are hybrids, subspecies or distinct species doesn’t detract from their ‘ecological authenticity’ as apex carnivores in eastern North America.”
Genetic fingerprinting of the red-wolf line is complicated because of the very small founder pool. By the early 1800s, the lithe deer-, raccoon- and rabbit-hunting wolves of southeastern forests and swamps were already vanishing. By the mid-20th century they were mainly restricted to the Gulf Coast of southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana (earlier strongholds apparently included South Florida’s Big Cypress and the Okefenokee Swamp on the Louisiana-Florida line).
The USFWS declared the red wolf endangered in 1967 and launched a recovery programme in 1973. Subsequently – with the future of the species in the wild deemed unlikely given habitat loss and interbreeding with coyotes – more than 400 wolf-like Gulf Coast canids were rounded up to initiate captive breeding. Only 14 of those several wild dogs were ultimately determined to be genetically “pure” red wolves, and the dozen of those that reproduced in captivity became the founders of today’s population.
In 1987, red wolves were reintroduced to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge: the first attempt anywhere to reintroduce a large carnivore to its former range. The following spring, biologists documented the first wild-born red-wolf pups in North Carolina since the animal’s extirpation.
Coastal North Carolina (as well as several southeastern islands where wolves are acclimated for release) has remained the outpost for wild red wolves in modern times; a 1990s reintroduction attempt in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the Southern Appalachians was abandoned after wolves dispersed outside park boundaries.
Last year, the USFWS announced a shift in its red-wolf strategy: restricting recovery efforts in the wild to publicly owned acreage in a single North Carolina county while attempting to double the captive population to 400. A number of conservation groups decried the announcement, and in September 2016, a judge barred the agency from removing red wolves that aren’t directly threatening pets or livestock from private lands.
Earlier this year, the USFWS solicited public feedback on the changes it was proposing. An analysis of the 55,000-odd comments received, conducted by the Wildlands Network and several other conservation organisations, suggested 99.8% supported efforts to restore wild red wolves in North Carolina. The conservation coalition noted in a press release from this August that this support extended to the local level.
“Zooming in to northeastern North Carolina, more than two-thirds (68.4%) of the comments from the current five-county recovery region were supportive of the Red Wolf Recovery Program, undermining claims that local residents oppose red wolf restoration,” they wrote.
You can read more about the USFWS’s approach to red-wolf recovery here.
The presence of red wolves makes the Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes refuges especially impressive expressions of North Carolina’s wild heart. To fully appreciate it, be sure to browse the camera-trap galleries of the Wildland Network’s Flickr page: a rich cast of other characters from the Albemarle-Pamlico backcountry – including white-tailed deer, bobcats, and lots and lots of black bears – make cameos.
The congressman who said he “would love to invalidate” the Endangered Species Act is closing in on his goal.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, recently shepherded five bills out of the Natural Resources Committee he chairs that would dismantle the law piece by piece. Many Republicans on the panel say the proposals are necessary changes that would modernize the 1973 law. Democrats and conservationists say the bills would whittle away the law’s ability to save wildlife from extinction.
One measure would force the federal government to consider the economic impact of saving a species rather than make a purely scientific call. Another would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the act along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to defer to data collected by states as the “best scientific and commercial data available,” although state funding related to the act accounts for a small fraction of that supported by the federal government.
Under a third proposal, citizens and conservation groups would be stripped of a powerful tool that allows them to file court claims against the government when they believe its protections fall short. Among other actions, the remaining bills would also remove protections for gray wolves in Midwestern states and block courts from ruling on the validity of the government’s decisions.
The legislation is setting up a titanic clash over a law that forms the foundation of American wildlife protection and has been copied around the world.
“This will be a battle royal,” said Bob Dreher, vice president for conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. “You’re going to see a strong, strong movement opposing cuts to the ESA. I don’t want to sound overly confident or cocky that we’re going to defeat this. It’s going to be the fight of my conservation career.”
Unlike earlier GOP attempts to weaken the act, Bishop is poised to realize his ambition because of Republicans’ control of both chambers of Congress and the White House. A Senate committee that previously held hearings on modernizing the act is preparing companion legislation, and a president who favors oil-and-gas development on federal land is more likely to sign it into law.
Bishop, who declined requests to comment for this story, exuded confidence about the bills’ prospects before the committee acted in July. “Hopefully, working with our colleagues in the Senate and the administration, we can lay a foundation for ESA reform that will do us well,” he said.
All of the measures, approved almost completely along party-line votes Oct. 4, are awaiting consideration by the full House.
Their passage would mark Bishop’s most significant legislative victory since the former high school teacher and debate coach entered politics in Utah, where he served as a charismatic leader of the state Republican Party and co-founded the Western States Coalition. The eight-term congressman has long been an opponent of the law, which is credited with saving the bald eagle, humpback whale, grizzly bear, California condor and the Florida manatee.
“It has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It’s been used for control of the land,” Bishop said this year. “We’ve missed the entire purpose of the Endangered Species Act. It has been hijacked.”
Bishop’s disdain was clear in the hearings, Democrats say. On witness panels, they charge, farmers, dam operators, state wildlife managers and others opposed to the act got their say about its supposed shortcomings, without comparable opportunities for scientific and federal government experts to check those claims. The Interior Department even barred Fish and Wildlife staff members from meeting with the minority caucus’ staff members as they attempted to gather information for hearing preparations, according to lawmakers such as Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, Ariz.
“The bias and the setup begins at the hearing,” said Grijalva, the Natural Resources Committee’s ranking Democrat. “We get one witness, they get three or four, and the drumbeat begins with the onerous things that are wrong with the act: It’s too cumbersome, it allows too many radical lawsuits, the states can do a better job, let them make the scientific and biological opinion of when wildlife should be listed.”
The law was essentially 73 years in the making. It followed the Lacey Act of 1900 that was passed to conserve wildlife after carrier pigeons that once filled America’s skies went extinct and bison nearly disappeared. Other conservation acts that preceded it were the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1929 and Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966.
Seven years later, that preservation act was strengthened to become the Endangered Species Act. The new legislation was approved by overwhelming and bipartisan margins — 355 to 4 in the House and 92 to 0 in the Senate. President Richard Nixon made it official with his signature that December.
The law gives the federal government control over regulating use of land that serves as habitat for endangered species, with assistance from states. It specifies that decisions should be based on only science, without consideration of the economic effect. The law also helps people sue for the protection of animals or plants through the Equal Access to Justice Act, which pays the attorney fees of individuals and organizations that take the government to court and win.
Today, more than 2,000 species are listed as endangered or threatened, including Loggerhead sea turtles in parts of the Atlantic Ocean, whooping cranes in the West and the Texas golden gladecress.
Over time, some lawmakers began to argue against the law’s species management and protection. Protecting animals such as the spotted owl and blue whale cordoned off enormous chunks of forest, ocean and desert. Private landowners were sometimes restricted or blocked from certain activities on their property, from logging and oil or gas drilling to cattle grazing and housing development.
This year, Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., noted that of the total species listed since 1973, only about 3 percent have been delisted. “As a doctor, if I admit 100 patients to the hospital and only three recover enough to be discharged, I would deserve to lose my medical license,” he said.
Peter S. Alagona, author of “After the Grizzly: Endangered Species and the Politics of Place in Southern California,” says some concerns about the law have never been sufficiently addressed. He thinks it is due for “an update,” but he disagrees with what he calls Republicans’ “false pretenses.”
“If the complaint is [that] the recovery of a species takes too long, the question is for whom,” he said. The agencies responsible for the effort “have lacked resources” to address critical issues, “and part of the reason is they have been starved by the politicians who are now claiming it takes too long.”
GOP lawmakers argue that states better understand species within their borders and should take a leading role in protecting them. But Alagona and others say animal populations have withered over the decades because of neglect by states.
A 2016 study by the University of California at Irvine showed that state spending to protect endangered and threatened wildlife over the 10 years ending in 2014 was “negligible” compared with federal spending — a collective $57 million vs. more than $1.1 billion.
Most state regulations cover fewer species than the federal government does, and 17 states do not bother to protect plants. West Virginia and Wyoming have no legislation protecting species, the study said, although Wyoming allocates more than most states on species management. Half of the states do not require any scientific evidence as a basis to list species or remove them.
Conservationists are worried about the ESA bills now before the House, but they are especially concerned about the proposal that would require federal wildlife officials to consider the “likelihood of significant, cumulative economic effects” of listing an animal or plant. Its author, Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, who has characterized the act as “a political weapon for extreme environmentalists,” said potential revenue and job losses as a consequence of species protection can no longer be ignored.
Olson’s bill would demolish a tenet that historically set U.S. species protections apart from those of other countries: Science should be a much stronger factor than money.
Dan Ashe, a Fish and Wildlife director under the Obama administration who is now president and chief executive of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, warns that putting economic interests first would be a serious blow to the law. The 2008 protection of polar bears under the George W. Bush administration, he said, is just one example of action that probably would not have happened.
“What a hard decision that was,” Ashe said. “If [agency officials] were required to consider the economic impact of the polar bear listing, would they have listed it? I think not.”
The drive to weaken the Endangered Species Act is coming at a crucial time, Ashe said. “Wide scientific consensus is that we’re living amid another great extinction crisis — people are calling it the sixth mass extinction,” he said. “Looking at these five bills, I see no sign that there’s a concern for improving the implementation of the Endangered Species Act.”
Jim, the protection of millions of acres is under review by the Trump administration. The lands and waters being reconsidered were designated as national monuments or marine sanctuaries by previous administrations and a public comment period is underway to gather input on whether to keep or remove these protected area designations.
Those under review include eleven marine national monuments and marine sanctuaries that are important feeding and breeding areas for fish, birds, endangered turtles and marine mammals. Several of these protected areas contain unique species of corals and marine animals found nowhere else on earth. Continuing their protection ensures that the animals dependent upon these habitats will survive to be enjoyed by future generations.
Such a proposal is unprecedented; no president has ever revoked a national monument designated by his predecessors. You can use the sample copy below.
Please submit a comment by July 10, stating:
I oppose revising or removing protection for the national monuments under review, including the five island and undersea areas currently designated as Marine National Monuments.
Today the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the Greater Sage-grouse, an iconic bird of the American West, does not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act.
Conservationists, ranchers, politicians, and industry have been on edge for months in anticipation of the decision, which was announced just days before a court-ordered September 30 deadline. The possibility of a listing had sparked fears of huge economic losses in the sage-grouse’s expansive habitat out West, as it would have restricted energy development, livestock grazing, and residential construction. States and federal agencies that control public lands have scrambled to create updated sage-grouse recovery plans in order to avert a listing. And many conservationists worried that a formal listing could undermine the serious—and pioneering—voluntary efforts taken to protect the bird’s sagebrush habitat in recent years.
Indeed, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell confirmed in a video released on Twitter this morning that a major factor in the determination was the cooperative efforts of federal agencies, states, private landowners, industry, and green groups to safeguard the chubby, chicken-sized bird. That includes the Bureau of Land Management’s 14 new sage-grouse recovery plans—consolidated from 98 distinct land use plans, all of which were officially formalized today—that will conserve 35 million acres of federal lands across 10 states. In total, the collective plans to protect the bird “significantly reduced threats to the Greater Sage-grouse across 90 percent of the species’ breeding habitat,” enabling the organization to conclude that the bird did not warrant listing, FWS stated in their release announcing the decision.
“This is truly a historic effort—one that represents extraordinary collaboration across the American West,” Jewell said in FWS’s statement. “It demonstrates that the Endangered Species Act is an effective and flexible tool and a critical catalyst for conservation—ensuring that future generations can enjoy the diversity of wildlife that we do today.”
“This is a new lease on life for the Greater Sage-grouse and the entire sagebrush ecosystem,” said National Audubon Society President and CEO David Yarnold. “Unprecedented cooperation by private landowners, states, and the federal government has created a framework for conservation at a scale unique in the world.”
When FWS first announced that the bird would be considered for a federal listing in 2010, regional conservation efforts had already been underway. “This is exactly what Audubon has been working toward for 10 years,” says Brian Rutledge, VP and Central Flyway policy advisor for Audubon. Rutledge and his team helped create a science-based approach to sage-grouse protections that significantly reduces disturbance in core habitat—an approach that’s been adopted in state and federal plans alike. “This is the kind of cooperation the Endangered Species Act was designed to encourage,” he says. “It wasn’t intended to list everything under the sun; it was to motivate conservation before listing became necessary.”
Photo: Daly Edmunds
The Enormous Effort to Stave Off a Listing
The sagebrush steppe is an old-growth forest in miniature, with some species of the fragrant shrubs living for more than a century. Development has cut the habitat to half its historical size, and today it spans 173 million acres across 11 states. The sage-grouse is inextricably linked to this sagebrush ecosystem: The plants provide cover from raptors and other predators, serve as shelter for nesting birds in the summer, and supply the grouse’s sole source of food in the winter—in fact, the birds actually gain weight eating the leaves during the harsh winter months. But as the habitat has shrunk, the birds’ numbers have plummeted, from millions a century ago to between 200,000 and 500,000 today. (Scientists count males at leks, or mating grounds, to extrapolate a rough population estimate; obtaining an exact count is impossible because the birds are essentially invisible in the vast sagebrush sea.)
A sunset view on the sagebrush-covered top of Pinedale Mesa and the magnificent Wind River Range. Sublette County, Wyoming. Photo: Dave Showalter
The Greater Sage-grouse is an indicator species of the health of this entire ecosystem. The desire to keep the bird off the list—and stave off the many restrictions that come with a threatened or endangered status—has generated a rare show of cooperation from those interested in using the habitat for drilling, ranching, or other economic endeavors. In consultation with conservation groups and government agencies, they have made ambitious commitments to protect enough space for the bird while still permitting some development. Today’s announcement is a ratification that the approach is working. “We’re seeing landscape-scale conservation like we’ve never seen before,” says Audubon’s Rutledge.
See a timeline of Audubon’s involvement in this critical conservation issue.
Rutledge helped create a Wyoming sage-grouse management plan that allows sage-grouse and industry to co-exist. The state is home to 37 percent of the sage-grouse population, and is also a major producer of coal, natural gas, and beef—all of which rely on the same sagebrush habitat. Under Wyoming’s plan, surface disturbance—from roads to wind turbines to gas wells—in areas critical to sage-grouse are limited to a maximum of 5 percent per square mile. Since Wyoming adopted the scheme in 2010, it has successfully protected 15 million acres of sagebrush habitat. Following this success, other states put similar plans in place, thus reducing threats to birds on tens of millions of acres while still allowing for development.
With most of Washington focused on fights over government funding, Obamacare and Russian meddling, a few congressional aides and outside advocates are quietly preparing for what could be an epic battle over the Endangered Species Act.
The contentious conservation law was protected by President Obama’s veto from Republican efforts to ease restrictions on farmers, energy companies and developers.
But with Republicans now controlling Capitol Hill and the White House for the first time since 2004, the endangered species law — which hasn’t been significantly updated since 1988 — appears vulnerable.
On one side of the fight are staffers for House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop (R-Utah), who said last year that he wants to repeal and replace the law (E&E Daily, Dec. 9, 2016).
But in the 115th Congress, Bishop is instead focused on narrow sections of the ESA that Republicans and industry groups find problematic.
His first hearing this year centered on a provision requiring input from the Fish and Wildlife Service or National Marine Fisheries Service — agencies that jointly administer the ESA — on government-approved or -funded projects that could “jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered species or threatened species, or result in the destruction or adverse modification of [critical] habitat of such species”(E&E Daily, March 29).
The hearing was held by the increasingly important Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, a panel Bishop created after winning the Natural Resources gavel two years ago (E&E Daily, Jan. 14, 2015).
Led since January by Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), Oversight has seven full-time GOP staffers — more than any other Natural Resources subcommittee, according to data from LegiStorm, a congressional staff tracking service.
Oversight staff director Rob Gordon, a veteran of the Hill’s periodic ESA fights, and counsel Megan Olmstead, a relative newcomer, will provide Republican lawmakers with most of the legislative ammunition they need. They and many other staffers featured in this story were not made available for interviews.
Gordon, who spent seven years at the conservative Heritage Foundation before returning to the Natural Resources panel when Bishop took over, also served as the Trump transition team’s advisor on regulatory reform (E&E Daily, Jan. 22, 2015). He has been working for decades to overhaul the law.
At the time, Gordon was the executive director of the National Wilderness Institute. The Vanderbilt University graduate left the oil industry-funded environmental group in 2004 to support the failed ESA reform efforts of former Resources Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.).
Olmstead is working closely with Gordon on the committee’s reform efforts. After graduating a decade ago from the University of Portland, a Catholic school in Oregon, she bounced between Capitol Hill, the Idaho governor’s office and the University of Notre Dame’s law school before ending up with Natural Resources in September 2015, her profile on the social networking site LinkedIn shows. In law school, she studied the gray wolf’s status under the ESA.
Across the Capitol, staffers for Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) are also formulating an overhaul strategy.
So far, Barrasso has held one hearing that sought to build bipartisan consensus for ESA reform and marked up a bill that he introduced with ranking member Tom Carper (D-Del.) that would revive and bolster several wildlife protection programs and launch annual innovation prizes for endangered species management and other conservation challenges (Greenwire, April 5).
Matt Leggett, the committee’s deputy chief counsel, and Andrew Harding, who took his first Hill job as counsel in September 2016, are two of Barrasso’s lead ESA reformers.
Leggett began working for the chairman in 2012 as policy counsel for the Senate Republican Policy Committee, which Barrasso then led. The University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University Law School graduate also worked in corporate law and served on the House Agriculture Committee and in the offices of Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) and former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). As an intern, Leggett worked with Robert Spencer, when he was U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, and Erskine Bowles, when he was chief of staff to President Clinton.
Soon after joining the committee, Harding helped get last year’s water infrastructure bill (S. 612) passed into law. He is now mainly focusing on wildlife and oceans policies.
Harding previously worked for corporate law firms, President George W. Bush’s Energy secretaries and USA Synthetic Fuel Corp., a bankrupt coal liquefaction company. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Washington and Lee University and graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law, according to LinkedIn.
The counselors’ efforts are overseen by staff director Richard Russell, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Yale University, and deputy staff director Brian Clifford, who has worked for Barrasso in a variety of roles over the past decade.
Any reform legislation Barrasso’s team produces will need to secure the votes of at least eight Democrats on the Senate floor to beat a filibuster. Their first challenge, however, will be winning over Mary Frances Repko, Carper’s deputy staff director.
“If you have dealt with the environment, if you have dealt with energy, or if you have dealt with the history of the Senate and the House on energy legislation and environmental legislation over the last 20 years, you know Mary Frances Repko,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said in a January floor speech honoring her for a decade of service in his office. The Maryland Democrat also noted she had worked closely with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on “fighting partisan anti-environment riders.”
Repko headed to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee the following month, the committee she staffed from 2003 until 2007, when she left to join Hoyer. She has also served on the staffs of Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).
Prior to coming to the Hill, Repko worked on water issues for the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation group, and the Great Lakes Commission. The native of East Lansing, Mich., earned her bachelor’s degree at Johns Hopkins University and a master’s from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment.
Republicans’ push for an ESA overhaul is likely to draw support from the Western Governors’ Association.
Under the leadership of Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R) in 2016, the conservative-leaning organization began advocating for ESA changes. At the same time, WGA endorsed a policy position urging Congress to reauthorize the law and this year convinced the National Governors Association to adopt a similar resolution (E&E News PM, March).
While Mead is no longer WGA chairman, policy adviser David Willms is still leading a series of meetings with a broad coalition of participants that aim to produce a specific set of recommendations that could make the ESA work better.
“We took some of the ideas that came out of that first year and have made them the subject of work sessions during the second year of this initiative,” Willms said in a phone interview from Cheyenne, Wyo., which he, his wife and two young daughters call home.
The sessions will wrap up in May, and the WGA hopes to have a list of fixes ready to promote by midsummer.
“Whether that is a set of recommendations that is taken to the Fish and Wildlife Service for regulatory changes, whether it includes recommended statutory changes, policy changes — all of that is to be determined,” he said. “But that’s what we’re moving towards, is seeing if there are places where there is consensus.”
The recommendations are being put together by representatives from state and federal government as well as groups representing sportsmen, environmentalists and the energy, lumber and agriculture industries. But Willms, who has also served in the Wyoming attorney general’s office and worked in private practice, declined to say exactly who is involved at this point.
One unlikely participant: the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife.
“I certainly believe fundamentally that the Endangered Species Act could work better,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, the president and CEO of Defenders. “And if there are ways to work better, we want to help that effort.”
But if a GOP reform bill emerges, Rappaport Clark — who often works seven days a week and uses a treadmill desk when she’s in the office — is ready to lead the fight against it.
“I don’t see a reform effort strengthening the law” in this Congress, she said. “I can only see a reform effort that will undermine and weaken the law’s ability to achieve its purposes.”
Rappaport Clark, an avid equestrian who lives in Virginia horse country with her husband and teenage son, is already working to educate Democratic senators about the damage that Defenders fears Republicans could do to vulnerable species and habitats. She is also attempting to rally other more broadly focused conservation groups, which are busy fighting to prevent the rollback of climate protection regulations and other environmental policies.
Her pitch is that the ESA is essentially the law of last resort for the environment.
“When the Clean Water Act fails, when the land laws fail, the Endangered Species Act will save enough,” she said. “We’re not going to allow extinction.”
That should be enough to mobilize the progressive community of Democratic lawmakers, environmentalists, minority groups, labor unions, religious groups and human rights organizations, Rappaport Clark reasoned.
“If — maybe I should say, when — the Endangered Species Act is truly under an assault, I have every expectation that folks will be there with us,” she said, before tapping her desk for good measure. “Knock on wood, please. They’d better be.”
In 1995, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced endangered gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho, and they soon spread throughout the Northern Rockies. After a series of lawsuits, in 2011 Congress delisted wolves in Montana, Idaho and parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah. (“How the gray wolf lost its endangered status— and how enviros helped,” HCN, 6/6/11). In Wyoming, wolves remained listed until 2012, when they came under state management. Conservation groups sued, and federal protection was restored in 2014.
In a March 3 ruling, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision. Wyoming’s wolves will again be placed under state management, and Wyoming will implement its 2012 plan, which allows wolves to be shot on sight across most of the state. “This decision highlights that Congress should not step in to block judicial review under the Endangered Species Act,” wrote Earthjustice attorney Timothy Preso in a statement. Plaintiffs say they may ask for a rehearing.