Photo credit: mybulldog/Creative Commons
Since 1973, the Endangered Species Act has shaped not only conservation in the United States, but the entire country's environmental policy. By calling on agencies to enlist help from the public and scientists, it bridges a gap between government and citizens. By mandating protections of habitat and the implementation of recovery projects it guards against the destruction of fragile ecosystems and rebuilds damaged natural resources.
But the Endangered Species Act—a piece of legislation that has, without a doubt, been largely successful—is not perfect. The success the legislation has had protecting and rebuilding gray wolf populations—and its failure dealing with these new wolves—has become a glaring example of these imperfections; an example that now threatens the vitality of the Endangered Species Act itself.
A History of Hunting
Organized wolf hunting in North America began well before the formation of the United States—notably with early bounties set by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.
The practice—paying citizens to hunt predators thought to be troublesome—was not new. The first wolf bounty in Europe dates as far back as 42 AD and, when colonists issued the first bounty in the New World, organized hunting was already on course to cause the extirpation of the species in the British Isles, which is thought to have occurred in the 18th century.
Indeed, wolves proved no more resilient in North America and, by the mid 20th century, gray wolves—outside a few small, isolated populations—had all but vanished from the continental United States. For an animal that once ranged across the entire continent—from Alaska to Mexico, from Atlantic to Pacific coasts—the reduction was significant and, when the Endangered Species Act went into effect in 1973, the few remaining wolves were among the first species to receive protection.
The Act Intervenes
The stated purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to "protect species and also the ecosystems upon which they depend." In practice, it does this by striving towards two main goals. First, the Act seeks to "prevent extinction of imperiled plant and animal life." In addition to this, the focus is "to recover and maintain those populations by removing or lessening threats to their survival."
If this recovery is successful, a species can be safely delisted. For the gray wolf, it is this success that has caused many of its contemporary problems.
The Road to Recovery
Following its official listing as an endangered species, the gray wolf began a dramatic recovery. With hunting illegal, wolves slowly migrated from Canada into Montana. By 2007, about 159 wolves had moved into northern and central parts of the state.
Meanwhile, wolf reintroduction programs, mostly active between 1995 and 1997, began to rebuild populations in the Rocky Mountains, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. In Yellowstone National Park and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area in Idaho, reintroduced populations grew from a few individuals to 371 and 713 wolves respectively.
Introduced populations in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota grew to nearly 4,000 individuals.
To List or Not to List...
By 2003, wolf populations in the Great Lakes region and the Northern Rocky Mountains had grown impressively. The species, which had essentially been extirpated, had once again reached sustainable breeding populations.
Based on this success, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved to downgrade the gray wolf's classification. Instead of being listed as "endangered," they argued, the wolf could now be considered "threatened." Such a downgrade maintains some of the protections formerly afforded by the act, but allows the USFWS to choose which protections are kept and which are removed.
The downgrade was met with heavy contention from conservation groups. A lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity claimed that, though wolf populations had increased, much of the "recovered area" didn't actually contain wolves. Furthermore, the suit argued that because only the alpha male and female of a pack mate, the effective breeding population was still too small to be considered stable.
A federal court agreed with the arguments and, in 2005, reversed the USFWS decision to downlist the gray wolf.
Just two years later, in 2007, the USFWS—citing a population that had grown to over 4,000 individuals—decided to completely delist the gray wolf in the Great Lakes Region.
Then, in 2008, the wolf was delisted from most of the Northern Rockies. This decision, too, was contested and a federal court ruled that it was unlawful—due to a lack of scientific evidence—a few months later. In this short period, several wolves were shot and killed in the Rockies.
In spite of the court's ruling, the decision to delist was upheld by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in 2009.
In the Hands of the States
With the wolves officially delisted, their management became the responsibility of the states. In the Northern Rockies, this meant that for the first time in decades an organized wolf hunt could be permitted.
In 2009, the first hunting season opened in Idaho and Montana, with a quota allowing for 300 of the then 1,700 wolves in the region to be killed. Within a few months, 258 wolves had been shot and killed.
Though the hunt was tightly controlled, the impact it had was significant. If allowed to continue for a second season, conservationists reported, the wolf population in the Northern Rockies would drop to half of it's 2008 numbers.
Back on the List...For Now
In 2010, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy reinstated Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Idaho and Montana, affirming that protections for the same population cannot differ by state.
"Congress does not intend agency decision-making to be fickle," Molloy wrote in his 40-page ruling, "when it is, the line separating rationality from arbitrariness and capriciousness is crossed."
The story, however, does not end there. A movement in Congress to counter the ruling with legislation began shortly after it was issued. The pair of bills, suggested by Representative Denny Rehberg of Montana, would remove gray wolves from the endangered species list entirely, potentially opening vulnerable populations across the country to hunting.
Such intervention by congress, critics argue, would set a dangerous precedent, stripping the Endangered Species Act of much of its power and threatening the authority of federal agencies to implement decisions.
Since it was established more than 30 years ago, the Endangered Species act has saved countless miles of critical habitat and brought at least 22 species back from the edge of extinction. Most of these species, however—like the bald eagle, gray whale, and grizzly bear—do not have the complex relationship with human populations that gray wolves do.
Though science shows North American ecosystems are healthier with wolves and research has found more than 60 percent of Americans favor wolf protections, wolves are still perceived as a threat to the livelihood of ranchers and the safety of rural citizens.
One thing is clear: "Crying wolf" has threatened the survival of one of the country's most valuable conservation assets—the Endangered Species Act.
Correction: The article originally stated 500 wolves had been killed during the Idaho and Montana hunts. Actually, 185 wolves were harvested in Idaho and 73 were harvested in Montana.
Read more about wolves:
Should Societal Values Be Considered When Placing Animals on the Endangered Species List?
The Impact of Wolf Hunting Much Greater than Commonly Assumed
Wolves Can Help Restore Ecosystems