As of Nov. 3, the gray wolf species lost federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in the lower 48 U.S. states, a move that many environmentalists have criticized as premature.
What does this actually mean?
Delisting wolves as an endangered species means that in 60 days, on Jan. 4, decisions for how to manage the species goes to each state.
The ESA, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries service co-administer, serves to recover endangered species by classifying them as ‘threatened,’ or endangered, according to Defenders of Wildlife. Once an animal gets listed as either, conservation programs use funding, collaboration and recovery plans to pave the way for rehabilitation and ensure federal agencies’ actions do not put the species in jeopardy.
For wolves, delisting gives states the ability to make conservation decisions. Three states, Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, have had this power since 2012, after the success of the Yellowstone restoration plan, which raised gray wolf populations from 300 to 350, according to the National Parks Service.
Since delisting, these states have also allowed for hunting of the species, an action that could harm the species’ ability to repopulate and led conservationists to protest. From 2012 to 2014, during which this federal power went under temporary restoration, more than one third of the region’s entire population was killed, according to the Endangered Species Coalition. Given that federal power, if this action survives court challenges and transfers to states, many expect that this may be adopted on a larger scale.
The delisting would affect states like Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, whose gray wolf population totals to around 4,400. Portions of Washington and Oregon would also be affected, as would areas such as California, where the population has only recently returned according to National Geographic.
In Washington, populations of gray wolves have remained below the baseline growth rate of 30% for three consecutive years, standing at a population of 108 as of 2019, according to The Center for Biological Diversity. Oregon has similarly disappointing recovery numbers, with only 160 wolves inhabiting just 12% of their available habitat within the state.
Why are gray wolves important?
Gray wolves currently occupy around 20% of their historic range, inhabiting Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico and Alaska, and total to around 6,000, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Gray wolves initially became endangered and nearly extinct due to hunting, poisoning and trapping, since they would eat livestock of farmers, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. As a result, they received federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1978.
According to Defenders of Wildlife, wolves act as essential members of a healthy ecosystem and serve as a keystone species. They help ensure deer and elk populations stay in check, which in turn helps many plant and animal species survive. Moreover, the carcasses of their prey redistribute nutrients and provide a food source to other species, like grizzly bears. At Yellowstone National Park, the reintroduction of the species visibly changed the landscape, increasing vegetation from the decreased elk and deer species, increasing bear populations and changing river courses.
What can be done?
Many frowned upon the move to delist gray wolves, both for scientific and legal reasons. A peer reviewed study done in preparation for the decision to delist reported the move as full of errors and lacking proper evidence, which the agency ignored.
A coalition of six conservation groups represented by Earthjustice — the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Oregon Wildlife, National Parks Conservation Association and the Humane Society of the United States — sent a notice letter on Oct. 19 with their intent to file a lawsuit.
On an executive level, the Biden Administration could lead the reestablishment of gray wolves as an endangered species when President-Elect Joe Biden officially takes office on Jan. 20.
Overall, decisions made regarding the wolf population must be fueled by scientific research to ensure that ecosystems and animals alike remain safely protected.