In an era when environmental regulations throughout the United States are under siege, one particular species that has only recently begun to bounce back from near extinction faces particular peril.
After nearly three decades of federal oversight, in March 2019, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it will seek to end gray wolf protection in the lower 48 states by removing it from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). If removed, the future of wolf management and protection would be transferred to individual states.
This would be a mistake. Without unified protection policy on a regional level, gray wolf populations could face significant challenges due to states’ individual policies and politics. States with strong ranching interests, for example, could very well allow wolf hunting with few restrictions, as they have in the past.
According to The Center for Biological Diversity, (CBD) gray wolf numbers have only recently begun to recover despite decades of reintroduction efforts. Current population estimates are around 5,600 individuals – far from the nearly 2 million gray wolves that once roamed North America. While recovery efforts have thus far been successful, gray wolves are noted to exist in a mere 10% of their historic range. What other government efforts aim for only 10% success rates? We did not land on the moon by only getting a tenth of the way there.
Taking federal protection of wolves away could not only destroy conservation efforts of the last 30 years, but also sets a tone of low standards for sustained species recovery. The apex predator’s tumultuous legal past – at both the state and federal levels – shows us just how politicized conservation can be.
U.S. history has not been kind to wolf recovery efforts. The federal government has experimented with delisting the gray wolf at times in the past, and it never ends well. Unwillingly embroiled in politics, the Northern Rockies gray wolf was first delisted during the Bush administration as it was said to have reached minimum recovery goals. According to Bioscience however, the minimum recovery goals – and hunting quotas – varied significantly between Montana, Wyoming and Idaho and lacked rigorous scientific analysis. During the first 100 days after delisting, 112 wolves were killed by humans in Idaho alone – a number that threatened to reduce wolves to their minimum limits within three years. Different minimum thresholds between states hinder a conservation effort that requires unified regulation standards.
A disconnect between states on hunting regulations could be detrimental to already fragile wolf populations throughout the West. And we are naive to think each state will hold responsible hunting quotas based on scientific evidence. Representatives of the CBD went as far to declare the potential delisting a “death sentence.”
Rather than focusing solely on the loss of biodiversity however, we as Coloradans need to first understand the overwhelming benefits that wolf reintroduction could provide to our state. After successful wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park, evidence shows not only significant ecological benefits, but also an estimated $35.5 million spent annually specifically from visitors coming to see or hear wolves within the park. We cannot ignore the potential economic benefits Colorado could see with wolves back in the West.
While the future of gray wolf protection is currently in the hands of the Trump Administration, The Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund is working on a statewide campaign to pass a 2020 ballot measure concerning the reintroduction of gray wolves to the Western Slope. As Coloradans we need to stay informed as active voters and educate our communities about the benefits that wolf reintroduction would have for our state.
And while there is no ignoring the contention of the issue, for restoration to succeed we need to stay engaged in the conversation and allow space for diverse perspectives. Time is limited and the previous three decades of successful efforts could become obsolete in a matter of years if protection is removed.
As city dwellers living in a concrete jungle, why should we care about a species most of us may never interact with in the wild? We should care because current policy sets a low standard of environmental protection. Conservation efforts should be apolitical and not hostage to four-year terms with alternative agendas. The push for long-term wolf survival has no immediate solutions and will require a great deal of time, effort and regulation among a unified West. Let’s see this marathon through to the finish – a time where wolf populations are stable and have recovered to much more than only 10% of their historic range.
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