Political opportunism punctures hole in safety net for imperiled species
by Heidi Ridgley
© Harry Rosen
One of the world’s most far-sighted environmental laws took a serious beating in April when Congress and President Obama quietly stripped federal protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies.
In the 37-year history of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), no species has ever been delisted purely for political convenience. But that’s exactly what politicians did, despite Defenders’ best efforts, when they attached an amendment to a must-pass, 11th-hour budget compromise that narrowly avoided a government shut-down.
“Congress has had a great record of basing the law’s interpretation on science and not politics, as was clearly intended—until now,” says Rodger Schlickeisen, Defenders’ president. “By legislatively removing federal protection from wolves in the Northern Rockies, Congress shoved science aside and put politics in the driver’s seat. That should give us all pause.”
Thanks to the ESA, hundreds of plants and animal species have been saved from extinction, including peregrine falcons, bald eagles, brown pelicans, California gray whales—and gray wolves.
Now local interests have trumped national policy. Championed by Montana Sen. Jon Tester (R) and Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson (R), the provision requires the Interior Secretary to reinstate the 2009 delisting rule that was declared unlawful by a federal district court.
Less than a week after Northern Rockies wolves were erased from the endangered species list, Montana wildlife officials proposed killing 220 wolves in this fall’s hunting season. The quota is more than three times higher than the 75 wolves killed during the last hunt in 2009. At press time, a decision on the exact quota was still pending. In Idaho, where the wolf population saw a 19 percent decline last year, officials are drawing up similar plans. Wolves in Wyoming will remain federally protected until the state creates a new management plan—the last one proposed by state officials and rejected by the Interior Department—allowed wolves to be shot across 90 percent of the state.
“In signing this bill, Obama opened the door to circumvent the long-established legal process for endangered species protection, jeopardizing more than the wolves of the greater Yellowstone region,” says Schlickeisen. Wolves have not yet recovered in Oregon, Washington, Utah or Colorado, and wolves in the Southwest—which number only about 50—remain severely imperiled.
Riding the momentum, Rep. Candace Miller (R-Mich.) introduced a bill in May that would eliminate the public review process for the proposed delisting of wolves in the Great Lakes states and trump science by delisting wolves in Arizona and New Mexico when the total population hits 100.
Other attempts to chip away at the ESA include a House bill that would set an arbitrary expiration date of 15 years for protecting rare, hard-to-study endangered species, even if they hadn’t recovered. Another would ignore science to make it easier for agribusinesses to divert more water from already collapsing salmon fisheries in the most arid part of California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta.
“If Congress is allowed to sidestep the country’s bedrock laws, it is pretty clear that the current majority in Congress will destroy the ESA and any serious effort to save wildlife,” says Schlickeisen. “Sacrificing America’s wildlife for short-term economic gain is a bad bargain because economic cycles come and go, but extinction is forever.”
Get the Facts
Gray wolves are native to the Northern Rockies. Humans exterminated them in the first decades of the 1900s.
The federal government relocated 66 gray wolves from Canada in the mid 1990s to restore the species and recover an ecosystem.
Tens of thousands of wolves once roamed the West. Today, only about 1,600 inhabit 328,000 square miles. For comparison, there are more than 3,000 wolves in the northern portion of Minnesota alone. (The entire state covers less than 87,000 square miles.)
Wolves are among the least dangerous carnivores to humans. Far more people are killed by bee stings and dogs and in auto collisions with deer and elk.