Time to Cry, Wolf

In a matter of days, the American West's iconic symbol of the wild - the gray wolf - will be removed from the Endangered Species List. The wolf once roamed most of North America, but human distaste for the predator wiped out most of the population in the early 20th century. In the mid 1990's, the federal government reintroduced wolves into Yellowstone National Park in hopes of restoring this animal to its natural landscape in the Northern Rockies.

Since their reintroduction to the region , wolves have been steadily climbing toward recovery. Melanie Stein, the Sierra Club's point person on wolf issues, tells me that recent counts indicate there are now approximately 1,500 wolves in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming -- all from the 65 that were originally reintroduced into Central Idaho and Yellowstone. On the surface, this population growth appears to be proof that it's time to remove protections for the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies, but you can't judge this complex ecological book by its cover.When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service solicited comments from average folks like you and me on the de-listing proposal in 2007, they were met with overwhelming opposition. Scientists, hunters, ranchers, conservation groups and others from the Northern Rockies, from across the country, and from beyond the U.S. all agreed that it's too early to remove wolves from the Endangered Species List. In fact, 98 percent of the approximately 93,000 comments that Fish and Wildlife received were in opposition to de-listing.

When the Wolf Recovery Plan was written, scientists thought 300 wolves distributed across the Northern Rockies equaled recovery. But as conservation biology has advanced in the years since the initial recovery goals were laid out, we've discovered that 300 wolves will not ensure a viable population over the long term , and that this recovery goal is arbitrary. Biologists believe that animal populations must number in the thousands in order for them to be genetically viable.

As one person commented on the de-listing proposal, "Setting quotas for allowable numbers of packs and individuals is not science, it's politics."

The three subpopulations of wolves in the Northern Rockies -- in Central Idaho, Montana, and the Greater Yellowstone Area -- have largely remained isolated populations, meaning that there hasn't been much connectivity between the populations. We are opposed to de-listing because wolf subpopulations aren't connected to each other, and also because state management plans are overly aggressive and geared toward maintaining the minimum number of breeding pairs allowed.

Scientists have paid particular attention to the Yellowstone packs, documenting their genetic variation. Although there is no documented inbreeding among the Yellowstone packs yet, their research indicates that, in the future, the population will suffer from inbreeding without connectivity to other wolf populations. I'm no conservation biologist, but I know that an inbred population cannot be healthy and fit and likely won't last into the future.

The state wolf management plans in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming are also highly aggressive. After de-listing, states are required to maintain only 10 breeding pairs. The plans do not commit to maintaining wolves above minimum levels - which could mean an 80 percent reduction in wolves in the states just because the management plans allows them to do so. Wyoming's plan even goes as far as to classify wolves as predators in the majority of the state, giving anyone the legal right to shoot, poison, or run over a wolf with a car.

Elected officials and state game and fish agency officials have gone on the record saying that they plan to manage wolves at the minimum. Last year, in front of several hundred hunters, Idaho Governor Butch Otter said, "I'm prepared to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself ."

Not long after, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department official told the Billings Gazette in Montana that once the animal is removed from special protection status, Wyoming aims to eventually reduce the number of wolves in the state to near the minimum the federal government will allow.

And so, the Sierra Club, along with 10 other local, regional and national conservation groups, has challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to remove the great gray wolf from the Endangered Species List. To learn more, visit the Sierra Club's Wyoming Chapter website. And we're also making it easy for you to voice your own objections to delisting.

Image credit::Sierra Club, via iStockphoto, Gray Wolf