By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Congress removed the Rocky Mountain gray wolves from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act yesterday, passing a rider in the budget bill that takes the wolves in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Utah off the ESA list.
Environmentalists have been railing against this possibility for days, both on the grounds that the wolves need continued federal protection and that Congress has no right to make changes to the Endangered Species Act without input from scientists.
Groups like the Center for Biological Diversity decried the action as pure politics.
The center issued a statement explaining that the move was partly motivated by a desire to help the re-election campaign of Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.),who submitted the rider, along with Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho).
Tester and Simpson can both make political points in their states by shutting down wolves because many ranchers and hunters in their states want the wolves stripped of federal protections.
“This is a dark day for wolves and for all species relying on federal protections for their survival,” said Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Senator Tester included the rider as a ploy to score political points in his 2012 reelection campaign, and now wolves and other species will have to pay the price.”
Leaders of other non-governmental wildlife and conservation groups also see the move as a dangerous precedent in which Congress has overstepped its authority, acting unilaterally to make an ESA decision that’s normally involves scientific inquiry and federal agencies. In essence, Congress is flouting it’s own law, the Endangered Species Act, which provides for scientific and public review of such decisions.
“What Congress has done today at the request of Senator Tester and Representative Simpson is unforgiveable and marks a low point in the recent history of wildlife conservation. Never before has Congress stripped Endangered Species Act protections for one particular species, putting politics above sound science and our national commitment to conserving America’s wildlife,” said Defenders president Rodger Schlickeisen in a statement.
The Center for Biological Diversity called out the rider approved by the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives as undemocratic because it “bans citizens from challenging the wolf delisting decision, even if wolf numbers plummet toward zero, while preserving anti-wolf litigation brought by the state of Wyoming and other parties”.
Noting that Congress has never intervened to override the Endangered Species Act since its inception under the Nixon Administration in 1973, Sucking called on President Obama to veto the federal budget bill to “ensure that an endangered species is not massacred; that the Endangered Species Act is not gutted; and that science, not politics, determines which species benefit from federal protections.”
The gray wolves, which were reintroduced into the upper Rockies in the U.S. in the mid-1990s, have grown from a handful of re-located animals to a thriving population of around 2,000. Since 2007, wildlife advocates and state and federal officials have been locked in a debate over whether their numbers are sustainable however; whether the animals are “recovered” at that level, and no longer need federal protections or should be allowed to grow, to 2,500 or beyond.
After much back-and-forth, and two major lawsuits over the wolves, the Obama Administration upheld the Bush Administration’s decision to remove the wolves from protections in 2009. That resulted in a brief period of hunting, managed by the states of Idaho and Montana. But environmentalists went back to court, arguing that not only were hunters reducing the wolf population too deeply, but that federal and state shootings of perceived problem animals were winnowing the wolves too rapidly. The environmentalists won a reprieve for the wolves in 2010.
The de-listing will return the management of the wild animals to the states. About 1,270 wolves (at last count) remain alive in Idaho and Montana, after the recent hunting seasons reduced their numbers. An estimated 300 remain in Wyoming, which is not affected by the decision, and only a few wolves have moved into Oregon and Washington.
Idaho and Montana are expected to reinstate wolf hunts. Environmentalists are worried that the hunting will kill too many of the 80 breeding pairs remaining in the states, causing the population to collapse.
Scientists supporting the environmentalist view defend the gray wolves as a needed part of the ecological systems in the Yellowstone region and beyond, saying that these top predators strengthen the ecosystem.
Those favoring hunting say the wolves can sustain an annual ‘winnowing’ of their population, just as bears and mountain lions do.
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