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Wolf Facts and What It Means To You

What's Been Happening?

By: J. Mitch King, ATA Director of Government Relations

It has been almost four months since my last “Wolf Facts”, so I think it is a time for an update. As it stands today, gray wolves are no longer listed under the Endangered Species Act in MT, ID and small portions of WA, OR and UT. In Wyoming, there have been considerable negotiations and progress made between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and Wyoming officials towards a proposal to delist. In the Great Lakes states (MI, MN and WI), the Service is still working through a standard delisting process.

While all of this sounds pretty good, there are considerable challenges ahead that could derail any and all of these actions. In the following paragraphs, I’ll try to summarize the facts as best I can.

If you need background to any of what you read here, I urge you to visit the Archery Trade Association’s Web site by clicking here.

NORTHERN ROCKY MOUNTAIN WOLVES

MONTANA & IDAHO

Let me start by saying emphatically that gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains are “recovered”. The science is absolutely clear on this point. I base my position on discussions with wolf specialists who work for the three principle states (MT, ID and WY) and with the Service’s wolf specialist that has overseen the wolf reintroduction in the Northern Rockies since it began. These scientists all agree that wolves are recovered. I emphasize this point because you will hear from a lot of fronts that Congress in some way substituted their political motivations for “science” and that wolves and the Endangered Species Act would suffer as a result of this “political intervention.” This is simply not true. In fact, when it relates to wolves, the science behind their management has been severely compromised for over a decade by overzealous wolf advocates and judges who felt the need to “advocate” from the bench. Congress simply eliminated the avenues of misuse of the Endangered Species Act and allowed wolf decisions to follow the science – as it should be.

As you can read in my earlier “Wolf Facts” updates, Representative Simpson (R-ID) and Senator Tester (D-MT) introduced legislation that was attached to Federal Budget legislation and signed by the President on April 15. Consequently, the previously approved Wolf Management Plans for MT and ID were deemed acceptable, wolves were rightfully determined to be “recovered” in those states, the protections of the Endangered Species Act were removed and wolf management was turned over to the state wildlife agency. The legislation also precluded any further judicial review of the decision.

This action took place in June and the two states have moved ahead with the task of wolf management. Both of these states have taken a scientifically based approach to managing their wolf populations. Like with their other wildlife species, management included setting sustainable population goals, scientifically based population monitoring and appropriate population controls that may include hunting as well as other population reduction actions where needed. Based on what I have seen to date, their actions substantiate what we have all known for years – the state wildlife agencies will approach wolf management in the same professional manner that they manage all other state managed wildlife species.

While all of these latest occurrences leave the impression that we are over the hump in MT and ID, there remains some gamesmanship going on within the legal arena. Wolf advocate groups immediately filed a legal challenge to the Congressional action. They argued that Congress interfered with the Constitutionally protected “separation of powers” when they legislatively precluded legal challenges to their action. They filed their challenge in Judge Malloy’s court – where they were sure to get a “friendly” reception. In July, Judge Malloy ruled against their challenge but he included language in his ruling that removed all doubt as to his biases on this issue. It was obvious that he wanted to uphold their challenge but simply could not find a legal loophole in the Congressional language where he could “cloak” his biases. Kudos to the Congressional staff who wrote the language!

The wolf advocate groups have filed an appeal and vow to continue this challenge to the Supreme Court if necessary. I hope that we will hear from the Appeals Court still this year. I’ll keep you posted.

WYOMING

Things are progressing slower in WY than in MT and ID, primarily because WY lacked a “Fish and Wildlife Service Approved Wolf Management Plan” that was already in place in MT and ID. You can read my thoughts on this issue in my previous “Wolf Facts”.

Since my last “Wolf Facts”, there has been a lot of progress towards the development of an acceptable wolf management plan and earlier this month (August 4), Wyoming released a revised wolf management plan that has the tentative approval of the Governor of Wyoming, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior. You can view this plan at the Wyoming Game and Fish Web site by clicking here here

I believe that this revised wolf management plan is a reasonable compromise. As you have read previously, I felt the original WY plan was scientifically sound and should have been approved by the Service. In fact, the Service initially approved the plan and then retracted their approval simply to appease an earlier ruling by Judge Malloy and with no scientific basis. That said, this new plan adds a small “seasonal expansion” of the WY “Trophy Game” area that will make it easier for wolves to migrate from ID to WY during winter months (when livestock depredation is not an issue). It also requires WY to maintain at least 10 breeding pairs of wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park – where the previous plan required 7 or 8 breeding pairs outside of the park. In my opinion, these are minor concessions for WY to make to win the approval of their plan and gain control of wolf management in their state.

All of this said, we all know that the next chapter in this wolf saga will be a final decision by the Service that will be immediately challenged by the wolf advocates. We also know where that will lead us. The solution for WY is to mimic what was successful in MT and ID. Once an acceptable WY Wolf Management Plan is approved, the WY Congressional Delegation needs to step in with legislation that memorializes that plan in law and eliminates judicial interference.

WESTERN GREAT LAKES WOLVES

Things continue to be very unsettled in the western Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Service and the state wildlife agencies have agreed on and approved wolf management plans for each of the states and the Service has moved ahead with a delisting proposal that appears to be headed for final approval. However, the legal posturing is already in the works and I suspect any final decision to delist in this region will be promptly met with a legal challenge.

Unfortunately I can’t be too optimistic here. There are two reasons for my lack of optimism. First is simply the track record of the Service being able to withstand legal challenges when it comes to the Endangered Species Act. The way the Act is written the “judge shopping” that goes on makes it virtually impossible to sustain a favorable ruling for a species as visible as wolves – regardless of the science.

My second reason for a lack of optimism is a little more concerning. At the time the Service announced their proposal to delist, they also announced the initiation of a comprehensive review of the genetics of gray wolves. Specifically, they are now suggesting the presence of another subspecies of gray wolf - the eastern gray wolf. If the Service decides that there is a significant difference between the gray wolf and the eastern gray wolf, then this new subspecies will likely qualify for a listing action. The problem is that in Wisconsin, the ranges of these two supposedly independent species overlap and it is impossible outside of a genetics lab to tell them apart which then makes management very impractical if the species are to be treated differently. Therefore, the delisting of the Western Great Lakes Population of the gray wolf will be in jeopardy in these overlap areas because of their similarity of appearance.

I’m somewhat suspicious of this new effort and am looking forward to seeing more of the science behind the decision. When I studied statistics in college, I found that you could use statistics to justify virtually any decision. What I found during my career with the Service and working on endangered species was that the science of genetics was just as “squirrely”. While the science can be so precise that you can distinguish between individual animals, the assumptions made to decide whether there is enough genetic difference between two groups of individuals to allow them to be treated as separate species or subspecies is nothing more than a collection of opinions.

My suspicious mind tells me that wolf advocates - maybe with the help of individuals within the Service - are setting the stage for a successful legal challenge for the delisting of the Western Great Lakes gray wolf population. Perhaps the practical reality of how to manage wolves in the field will prevail and we’ll be dealing with one combination of gray wolves in the Great Lakes which would be a relief to Minnesota where wolves have been recovered for two decades. Once again, my solution is to follow the lead provided by MT and ID. Now that the Service and the state wildlife agencies are in agreement on the science, it is time for the Congressional delegations to step in and eliminate the potential for wolf advocates and judges who advocate from the bench to mess with the science.

THE ATA POSITION

The position of the ATA remains unchanged. We continue to recognize that there is a strong scientific basis for delisting the wolf in all six states (MT, ID, WY, MI, MN and WI). All six of these states have fully recovered gray wolf populations. They also have wolf management plans that satisfy the requirements of the Endangered Species Act and each state’s management plan has been approved by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The ATA will continue to stay engaged in this process and look for solutions to bring full delisting to all six states where sound science has found that the gray wolf has been effectively recovered.

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