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Dec 062013

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Hunters have killed 299 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, as the trophy hunting season approaches its rough midpoint later this month.

Wolves in Lamar Canyon (Photo: Marc Cooke, Wolves of the Rockies)

Wolf in Lamar Canyon (Photo: Marc Cooke, Wolves of the Rockies.)

Even more have been killed in the Upper Midwest, where trophy hunting of wolves also is underway. But one ecosystem at a time. First, the Rocky Mountain gray wolves.

Trapping is beginning in the three states and will add to those kill totals in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming (tallied through Dec. 6). One can envision that if the season proceeds apace, 500 to 600 wolves will be killed, perhaps more. Last year, the total “harvest” for the season was 611 wolves in the three states. Some pups were born in the interim, but now another 600 wolves are facing the bullet (or a leg trap) in the 2013-2014 hunting.

That would mean that more than one-third of the estimated 1,600 wolves (+ an unknown number of pups) in the three-state region will be gone. (That 1,600 population estimate is the number believed to be alive at the end of 2012, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).)

It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that pretty soon state wildlife officials could get their wish of managing the wolf population down to about 400 animals in the three-state region. Their justification for keeping the wolf numbers low: wolves prey on livestock. It’s a real problem. At their peak, wolves killed hundreds of cattle and calves annually in the three states, according to federal officials.

Wildlife experts say the predation is exaggerated, with some cattle deaths attributable to other factors. In addition, wolf kills of livestock, they say, could be reduced by better managing grazing on public lands and through the use of fladry to frighten the wolves away from herds. Oregon, which passed a coexistence law, is trying to establish a more tolerant approach that provides for wolves and ranches.

But there’s another facet to the wolf debate. Hunters are worried that wolves may be the reason elk herds have declined in some areas. The reasons for the periodic dips, though, are likely multi-faceted, with elk herds suffering from disease and bad weather.

For hunters, this third wolf season is a big victory, except for that Catch-22 that the aggressive wolf killing may extinguish the opportunity for more of the same in the near future. But for the moment, the wolf is a new trophy animal to pursue. Like other trophy targets, such as the black bear and the mountain lion, wolves are killed for sport, for bragging rights, as compared with deer or elk hunting, which fills freezers with meat.

Conservationists are worried about the Rocky Mountain wolves. The Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Earthjustice, The Center for Biological Diversity and the National Wildlife Federation are all fighting to restore protections for the wolves, or at least stop the pending removal of protections nationwide.

Wolves in Yellowstone, NPS photo

Wolves in Yellowstone (Photo: National Park Service)

Many don’t believe the Rocky Mountain wolf population, which might have reached about 2,000 at its peak three to five years ago, was sufficiently recovered to sustain the bombardment of hunters. They think hunting will at best drive the wolves into remote regions, where they may or may not survive and will lack important genetic breeding connections to other packs; at worst, bring on a second extinction of the wolves in the lower 48 states. In the latter scenario, history would repeat itself, with hunters and trappers annihilating the wolves in the lower 48 states as they did in the first half of the 20th Century. (A sliver population survived in Northern Minnesota and Michigan.)

Most importantly, the conservation groups say the focus on killing predators overlooks their importance in healthy ecosystems. Sierra explains this on their website:

Wolves are vitally important to maintaining the natural balance, culling out weak and sick animals to keep populations of elk and deer healthy and in check. The rippling benefits of wolf reintroduction can be seen throughout the region– from the reappearance of willow and aspen trees, to the return of beavers, and increased populations of red foxes.

Managing the wolves “down” also ignores that this wild animal once counted the entire country as its native range, notes the Center for Biological Diversity, which is fighting the Obama Administration proposal to lift protections for wolves across the rest of the U.S. (In addition to the three Rocky Mountain states, the FWS has delisted the wolf in Minnesota, Wyoming and Michigan, where hunting also has commenced.)

The Center maintains that wolves are entitled to more space and also that a more tolerant policy toward them would benefit many species.

Since the original wolf recovery plans were written in the 1980s, we’ve learned much more about wolves’ behavior, ecology and needs. We know, for example, that returning wolves to ecosystems sets off a chain of events that benefits many species, including songbirds and beavers that gain from a return of streamside vegetation — which thrives in the absence of browsing elk that must move more often to avoid wolves — and pronghorn and foxes that are aided by wolves’ control of coyote populations.

After their mass extinction in the 20th Century, the gray wolves were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1973 and reintroduced into the Rocky Mountain West in the mid-1990s.

Within a decade it was clear the animals were thriving in the wild spaces of Idaho, Montana and to a lesser extent Wyoming. The habitat was perfect. The wolves were able to live off their preferred natural prey, the elk.

But as the wolves recovered, ranchers experienced their presence as a nuisance or deadly threat, depending on the situation. The wolves preyed on cattle, though environmentalists noted that often lethal encounters took place on public lands  near wilderness, and during calving season, drawing the wolves into a situation that could have been obviated by keeping the cattle on fenced or guarded private property.

Wolf pups (Photo: Larry Allen)

Wolf pups are expected to regenerate the population, but will they? (Photo: Larry Allen)

Federal and state game officials decided the wolves had become too successful and after several years of trying, they succeeded in removing the wolves from the ESA list, clearing them for hunting. Environmentalists protested, saying the rugged mountain landscape needed this apex predator, who had fit neatly back into the wild ecosystem. But by 2011, the wildlife conservationists lost their last court challenge. The wolves were returned to state management and transitioned from sheltered to trophy animal status, with a number or quota on their back.

The hunts began and even Yellowstone Park quickly lost radio-collared wolves that had been studied by biologists and photographed by tourists for years. The wolves were fair game when they stepped out of the park, where hunting is not allowed. Rifle fire brought down the legendary ’06, a beloved Alpha female that had been the pride of the park.

Meanwhile, in another ecosystem, the Upper Midwest, wolf hunts also began as the FWS lifted wolf protections for Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. At this point in the 2013 season, 27 wolves out of a quota of 132 have been killed in Minnesota; 219 out of a quota of 251 in Wisconsin and 19 out of a quota of 43 in Michigan, where there are many fewer wolves. Grand total in the Upper Great Lakes wolf hunting territories: 370. (The hunting quotas have been less aggressive relative to the total population in Minnesota, but wolf hunting has been controversial with conservationists questioning, and sometimes protesting, game officials.)

With wolf hunting underway in the states where the wolves mainly reside, the Obama Administration officially proposed lifting ESA protections for all wolves in the lower 48 states (except for a small section of AZ and NM where the Mexican wolf struggles near extinction). This proposal has been hugely upsetting to environmentalists, who had hoped the animals would be allowed to randomly reestablish themselves in states like California, Utah and Colorado or New York, where wooded, mountainous areas offer ideal habitat, but which have not had wolf populations for decades. Wolf migration into potentially “friendly” states would give the wolves a foothold on survival, they say.

The public has until Dec. 17 to comment on the plan to lift protections across the U.S. The Center for Biological Diversity has set up a protest letter for use by those who support wolf conservation.

Copyright © 2013 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media

Oct 252013

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

America’s wolves got a reprieve this week, though only a tiny one. The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it is extending the public comment period on the pending nationwide delisting of the gray wolves from protections under the Endangered Species Act.

That will give wolf advocates more time to protest the delisting, until Dec. 17, in compensation for the loss of comment time during the recent government shutdown. In addition, public hearings on the delisting proposal have been rescheduled for November 19, 20, 22 in Denver, Albuquerque and Sacramento, respectively.

But while the potential wholesale delisting of the gray wolves in the lower 48 states (minus a swath of Arizona and New Mexico) has been pushed back, there’s been no respite for wolves in the rifle scopes of hunters in states where the wolves have already lost federal protections.

Wolves, black and gray, Wolves of the Rockies, Marc Cooke

Wolves from the famed Lamar Canyon pack in Yellowstone. The pack lost its leader, ’06, last year to a hunter. (Photo: Marc Cooke, Wolves of the Rockies)

Hunting started weeks or months ago in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, where most of the US Rocky Mountain gray wolves live.

So far, (as of Oct. 23) 148 wolves have been killed by trophy hunters in the 2013-2014 season in these three states — 77 in Idaho, 41 in Wyoming and 30 in Montana.

Several additional wolves have been killed as “predators,” shot in territories where shooting wolves on sight is allowed (in most of Wyoming) or in incidents in which the wolves had been shown to be preying on livestock. (In Wyoming, 29 wolves have been killed in incidents labeled “other mortality” and are not counted toward hunting quotas.)

The number of wolves “harvested” will undoubtedly multiply, probably reaching several hundred, as hunting with rifles continues in the states until the season ends in mid-winter, spring or next summer, depending on the region. Trapping seasons, which begin later, will add to the toll.

During last year’s 2012-13 season, 319 wolves were killed by hunting or trapping in Idaho; 225 were killed by hunters or trappers in Montana; 67 were killed in Wyoming in both its hunting and predatory zones. The grand total: 611.

Advocates say this level of hunting is too aggressive, and will wipe out the wolf population, just as over-hunting exterminated the wolves in the middle of the 20th Century across most of the US.

Game management officials say the wolves will regenerate, settling in at lower, but still sustainable population levels, as the packs have pups in the spring.

Indeed, at the end of 2012, an estimated 1,674 wolves, organized in 321 packs, remained in the Northern Rocky Mountain region, a number that suggested the wolves were weathering the hunting that began the previous year, according to the FWS.

“Wolf restoration in the Northern Rocky Mountains (NRM) has been an amazing success thanks to both the resiliency of wolves and the cooperative efforts of Federal, State, and Tribal agencies, conservation groups, and private citizens; including ranchers, sportsmen, and outfitters,” said Gavin G. Shire, public affairs specialist for the FWS.

Regeneration, though, won’t be a given for every pack. Wolves are intensely social, and the hunting is dispersing and disrupting their family structure, say experts.

Earlier this month, Wyoming reported five wolves killed over a few days in one of the state’s hunting regions near Yellowstone National Park, raising alarms that a park pack had been wiped out. Wyoming’s Fish & Game officials have not reported back with information on those shootings. But the nature of that “harvest” suggests that one pack could have been devastated. In such situations, the remaining wolves often fail to survive, let alone breed, after the loss of family members. Biologists warn that the longterm survival of US wolves is imperiled.

A current Move.org petition to keep the wolves protected complains about this problematic aspect of shooting wolves: “The killing has taken place without regard to the fact that wolves mate for life and form strong bonds, raising their young in extended families that cooperate in providing for the whole. . . ”


Wolve, Lamar Canyon, Marc Cooke, Wolves of the Rockies

A wolf from the Lamar Canyon pack in Yellowstone. (Photo: Marc Cooke, Wolves of the Rockies)

No one knows exactly how many wolves are left in the U.S. Northern Rockies. Estimates suggest that close to 2,000 wolves were present at the peak of their recovery about 2006-2007, after being reintroduced to the region in the mid-1990s, when gray wolves from Canada were released into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

About 12 years later, federal game officials decided that the wolves had regained sufficient numbers to delist the animals and began the required process of gathering information and holding the requisite public hearings .

Conservationists opposed the de-listing, arguing that the wolves were not adequately recovered.

A longterm robust recovery for the wolves would require an ongoing population of “at least 2,000 to 3,000” animals in the upper U.S. Rockies, says EarthJustice’s Doug Honnold. A managing attorney for EarthJustice in San Francisco, Honnold served for two decades in Earthjustice’s Montana office and remains the lead attorney working on behalf of wolf conservation.

Honnold led a coalition of conservation and wildlife advocates that clashed in court with federal officials, who wanted to turn over wolf management to the states.

State and federal officials said that “managing” the wolves down to lower population levels would avert predation on livestock, but still allow several wolf packs to survive.

Wolf of Rockies, National Park Service photo

A wolf in Yellowstone. (Photo: US National Park Service)

Advocates countered that the livestock losses had been relatively small, were often reimbursed and also were the consequence of ranchers grazing cattle and sheep on public lands near wild spaces, where the herds were more vulnerable.

If the ranchers took precautions, like not allowing calving on public grazing leases, the advocates maintained, the wolves would rely on their natural prey of deer and elk.

Some ranchers countered that any predation by wolves was too much; they couldn’t afford it. Many hunters also turned up at public meetings, portraying the newly robust wolf population as a needless nuisance that depressed elk and deer numbers.

Coexistence among all these groups proved elusive.

The back and forth spanned the late Bush years into the Obama Administration, and in the spring of 2011 Congress ordered the delisting of wolves in Montana and Idaho. Wyoming’s wolves were delisted later after state officials made adjustments to a management plan that had been deemed too harsh. The three states took over management of the wolves, set hunting seasons and pledged to keep a population of 300 wolves across the region, which the FWS had set as a sustainable level.

Later the states agreed to manage  the wolves, at least initially, to a higher minimum of 150 wolves per state, Shire said, noting that these wolves are merely an extension of a vast, much larger population of about 65,000 wolves ranging across Canada and Alaska.

Wildlife proponents have never liked the 300 number, holding that scientific research shows the wolves need a greater foothold to maintain their biological niche in the rugged mountain ecosystems. A hardy genetic pool requires inter-breeding across packs, and that won’t happen if the wolves are too dispersed, they said.

(Over this same period, wolves were delisted in the northern Great Lakes region, which had been a wolf stronghold, and hunting, and the debate over numbers, began in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan as well.)

Apex predators are needed to sustain other wildlife, even their natural prey, say those who maintain the wolves should be left alone. They hold up even the health of their traditional prey, and exert a ripple effect, as do all animals in the life web, that strengthens their ecosystem.

Thousands of tourists who visit Yellowstone National Park armed only with binoculars also are be cheated, say wolf proponents.  Honnold says one economist’s study found that wolf tourism generates $35 million in annual economic activity in and around the park. (In 2011, officials counted 98 wolves living in YNP; in Dec. 2012 the park experienced a shot heard around the wolf fan community when a hunter killed a well-known Yellowstone alpha female known as 06.)

The arguments on behalf of wolves seemed to become less audible, though, as the hunters’ bullets flew, making clear who’d won the latest round in the wolf debate.

Wildlife biologists renewed their pleas on behalf of the wolves earlier this year when the Obama Administration proposed the virtual nationwide delisting..

Sixteen scientists wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewel in May to protest that the gray wolf “has barely begun to recover or is absent from significant portions of its former range where substantial suitable habitat remains.”

The new FWS proposed rule to remove gray wolf protections across the board (except for the Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico), “fails to consider science identifying extensive suitable habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rocky Mountains and the Northeast,” the scientists wrote.

“It also fails to consider the importance of these areas to the long-term survival and recovery of wolves, or the importance of wolves to the ecosystems of these regions.”

The scientists saw vast suitable territory for US gray wolves, but officialdom did not. The FWS explained on its website that it had “erroneously included” too many areas outside the wolves’ historic range when it first protected the wolves in 1978. That was the rationale for removing virtually all the gray wolves from endangered species status.

In Honnold’s view, though, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s new plan to kick the wolves off protections came about simply because FWS is “sick and tired” of being ensnared in wolf management issues. It wanted to escape the thorny issues and return all authority to the states.


The wolves, meanwhile, are stuck with the fate that humans elect for them. In addition to dodging bullets, they face another more ephemeral enemy: their bad boy image.

Wolves, historically feared and often reviled, stood in the way of taming the land for agriculture and ranching.

Wolves, historically feared, even reviled, stood in the way of taming the land for agriculture and ranching.

Wolf hate has supported strident anti-wolf policies in the Rocky Mountain states, says Marc Cooke, president of the watchdog and educational group, Wolves of the Rockies (and on Facebook) .

Unfair practices include unlimited wolf hunting in many areas, electronic calling to lure wolves (which some hunters consider unethical) and the failure to provide a hunting buffer near Yellowstone National Park, he says.

“Because of special interest influence and an irrational hatred for wolves we are seeing what is clearly non-science based management of wolves. Make no mistake this is persecution of wolves and other carnivores that call the Rockies their home,” says Cooke, a conservationist and veteran who lives in Missoula.

“Wolves are treated differently from other large keystone predators. Mountain lions and bears all have quotas to control the harvest numbers.   Why don’t wolves?” he asks. (The states have some quotas in selected regions.)

Wolves evoke strong feelings among humans, as revealed by the nearly 3,000 public comments online at the government’s website Regulations.gov.

Many of those commenting express their love, awe and admiration for these “beautiful creatures”, cousins of man’s best friend. A perusal of the comments indicates that the vast majority of those writing support keeping protections for gray wolves. A minority of those commenting say the wolves should be delisted and hunted. The comments give the gist of the debate and the flavor of the emotion around this matter. (People can post comments through Dec. 17.)


  • Wolves are a part of the ecosystem and are needed to keep nature in balance. Several commenters  warned against “playing God” with nature, noting that USFWS expertise doesn’t rise to that level.
  • 16 Scientists wrote to oppose the new FWS delisting plan and that should be enough. Several commenters including one behavioral ecologist tried to explain the science: “It is time to quit humoring those that refuse to listen to science. Wolves are an essential part of the escape, and all of their populations must be protected. If you fail to do this, for wolves and our other large carnivores, the US will eventually become a boring mono-culture bound for collapse. Therefore, increase protections for wolves, increase reintroduction of Mexican Grey wolves, and increase the punishments for those that violate US federal laws when they illegally kill endangered species.”
  •  Removing protections and allowing hunting, fails to give the wolves an opportunity to migrate to and repopulate in their natural habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California, Colorado and even in  parts of the Northeast, noted some.
  •  The part of the FWS rule that provides for reintroducing the Mexican gray wolf into the Southwest should stay, though it should not designate the Mexican wolves as “non-essential” to this biological region. Wild wolves — only 75 remain in the wild — are essential to bring back this subspecies. (The FWS disagrees, maintaining that the wild population is not essential because Mexican gray wolves in captivity could be used to spur the species forward.)
  • The wolf hunts a slaughter or a “war on wolves”. “Over 1100 wolves killed [since hunting has been revived] is not a management plan, but another extermination plan,” said one commenter. Said another: “You wouldn’t stand for your dog to have its head chopped off and hung on your mailbox, would you?


  • Hunting should be allowed for the wolves because they are predators that interfere with livestock and wild herd animals.  One hunter summed up for many:  “I was hoping that the people pushing the Mexican Wolf program take a lesson from Wisconsin, Wyoming and Alaska: more wolves, less big game animals, less cattle, less horses, less pets and more dissatisfied sportsmen and women. Arizona could use more game animals not less. NO MORE WOLVES.”
  • ·         Comments from the pro-hunting side are in the minority at Regulations.gov; though hunters and hunting outfitter and safari groups have been wildly enthused about the advent of wolf hunting in the US West. Their pictures of smiling hunters holding up dead wolves populate the Internet. For some, hunting, tracking and assisting big game hunters is a business.

Over this winter, the US FWS will proceed to collect comments and hold hearings, while groups such as EarthJustice, Wolves of the Rockies and Defenders of Wildlife reengage their members in the cause. Conservationists, ranchers and hunters and anyone who’s interested will be able to weigh in at the comments site and the hearings. But the FWS has decided the gray wolf should be removed from the ESA protections.

“The goal of the ESA is not to recreate the past,” explains Shire. “The goal is to protect species from extinction.  Once a species is no longer in danger of extinction (now or in the foreseeable future), our job under the ESA is done.  We have far too many species that desperately need help; we cannot afford to continue to invest scarce resources on species that have recovered.”

When, and if, the agency opts to delist the gray wolves, Honnold vows his group will be ready with a sheaf of science reports and legal briefs.

“We’ll meet them in federal court to make sure they [the wolves] stay listed,” he said, “or do our level best to try to accomplish that.”

Copyright © 2013 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Oct 162013

Green Right Now Reports

Wolf of Rockies, National Park Service photo

A gray wolf of the US Rocky Mountains. (Photo: National Park Service)

Wolf bounty hunters in Wyoming may have crippled a wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park, where tourists come to view the wildlife.

According to local reports, hunters killed five wolves in the Wyoming region abutting the park over the last several days. Wyoming game officials will not release details about the wolves killed, but advocates are concerned that they may be from the famous Lamar Valley pack.

Mike Koshmrl from the Jackson Hole News & Guide reports:

Wolf watchers in the Lamar Valley — perhaps the most famous place on Earth to spot a Canis lupus in the wild — fear the worst: that the animals killed were members of the Lamar Canyon Pack. It had 11 members at the end of last year.

One wolf advocate says he sought the identity of the wolves killed in area two from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department but didn’t get any answers.

“They’re hiding behind their statute that says they can only release so much information, which is a bogus excuse,” said Marc Cooke, president of Wolves of the Rockies. “They might as well face the reality that there’s a good possibility that wolves killed were from Yellowstone.”

Last year, the Rocky Mountain gray wolves were delisted in Wyoming as a protected species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The wolves also have been removed from federal protections in Montana and Idaho, the other states with the bulk of the wolf population in the West.

All three states now have legalized wolf hunting, with quotas set to try to maintain the wolves at sustainable, but lower population levela. The number of wolves had reached about 2,000-2,200 at the height of their recovery in the region, fostered by their reintroduction to the U.S. in the mid 1990s. Those numbers are now dropping, with the annual hunting in the three states.

Wolf advocates fear that the hunters will kill Yellowstone wolves, a popular attraction, and drive down the wolf populations across the northern Rocky Mountains region, hurting ecosystems that depend on the apex predator.

Most of Wyoming’s 300 or so wolves reside in the Northwest corner of the state, in the area around Yellowstone National Park. While the wolves cannot be hunted in the park, they can be legally shot the minute they step off the park grounds, into Wyoming, Montana or Idaho.

Wyoming has set up two hunting regions in the western third of the state, where an estimated 90 percent of its wolves reside, and has designated the rest of the state as a place where wolves are considered predators and can be shot on sight. Wolves also can be shot on sight in the Southwest corner of the state between March and October, outside of hunting season.

Wyoming explains its rationale toward wolves on the state fish and game website:

Wyoming statute specifies that wolves in Wyoming are designated as Trophy Game Animals in the northwest corner of the state and as Predatory Animals in the rest of the state. The northwest portion of Wyoming has suitable habitat to maintain wolf populations. The rest of Wyoming is largely unsuitable wolf habitat, and wolves in these parts of Wyoming often cause conflicts with livestock.

Oct 032011

By Emily Caldwell
Ohio State university

When a species recovers enough to be removed from the federal endangered species list, the public trust doctrine – the principle that government must conserve natural resources for the public good – should guide state management of wildlife, scientists say.

The gray wolf lost federal protection.

In the Sept. 30 issue of the journal Science, the researchers note that the public trust doctrine holds that certain natural resources, including wildlife, have no owners and therefore belong to all citizens. So, they add, when federal statutory law no longer offers protection to a species, the public trust doctrine imposes upon states an obligation to conserve the species for their citizens.

The researchers cite the case of the gray wolf, which lost federal protection in the northern Rocky Mountains last spring under a rare Congressional legislative rider. This rider was passed after courts had reversed three previous U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service attempts to delist the wolf in the region, which includes Idaho, Montana and parts of Oregon, Washington and Utah.

The merits of protecting gray wolves have been hotly debated for years in the northern Rocky Mountains, where public opinion varies considerably among livestock owners, hunters and wildlife advocates. Idaho and Montana have launched public hunts aimed at reducing wolf populations since federal protections were lifted. Wolf advocates fear that heavy-handed “lethal management” of wolves could deplete the population so rapidly that the species will require federal protections again. Under the Endangered Species Act, the federal government monitors a species for at least five years after it is delisted, but state wildlife agencies take over management.

Lost in these bitter arguments is any attempt to clarify state agencies’ obligation to their citizens, said Jeremy Bruskotter, assistant professor in Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources and lead author of the Science paper.

The wildlife trust doctrine, a branch of the public trust doctrine, defines that obligation, the paper’s authors argue. The public trust doctrine has roots in ancient Roman and English common law, but its application to wildlife in the United States dates to the late 19th century. In an 1896 case, Geer vs. Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the wildlife trust doctrine imposed on states a duty “to enact such laws as will best preserve the subject of the trust and secure its beneficial use in the future to the people of the state.”

“If you recognize a wildlife trust doctrine, and that the state has the obligation to maintain these populations in perpetuity not just for current residents but for future residents, then there is a degree of protection for species in the absence of the statutory protection,” Bruskotter said.

The researchers note that natural resource agency professionals are likely to be aware that all wildlife are communally owned by each state, but western politicians’ open hostility toward this formerly protected species raises the question: What are states actually going to do?

“Some of the rhetoric about the killing of wolves might be political showmanship. But when they make exaggerated claims – for example, comparing wolf restoration to the resurrection of the T. rex, which was done in Utah – that adds layers of ambiguity and fear. Conservationists wonder if they will try to eliminate wolves and wonder if they can do it,” Bruskotter said. “But the public trust doctrine holds that if state politicians were to intervene to try to prevent the maintenance of a viable wolf population, they could be taken to court. There is a legal mechanism to prevent that type of action.”

Traditionally, the conservation and management of wildlife resources in the United States has been driven by state governments, which established agencies to monitor wildlife populations and regulate activities like hunting and trapping. However, the federal government began to take an interest in imperiled species in the 1960s, culminating with the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

“This is where the conflict turns. Until then, the impetus for wildlife management had come primarily from the states. Then the feds came in and said, ‘We’re taking over the protection and, hopefully, the recovery,’” Bruskotter said.

The federally led reintroduction of gray wolves to western states didn’t sit well with many of those states’ officials, who characterized the action as an unwanted federal intervention. When the wolf population was deemed to have met federal recovery goals in the region in 2002, state politicians began “clamoring for management authority,” Bruskotter said.

To date, wildlife advocates haven’t had to rely on the wildlife trust doctrine to guide their management because states generally show a strong desire to conserve species. The case of gray wolves in the northern Rockies has been unusual, with western legislatures continually expressing the desire to minimize or even remove wolf populations altogether.

While case law exists to define the reach of the public trust doctrine, additional case law would be beneficial to firmly establish states’ obligations in the management of species no longer covered by federal protection, the authors contend.

“If this obligation is going to be more than just understood, there will need to be case law established, which is going to require somebody to take things to court to see what those obligations are,” said Sherry Enzler, a co-author of the paper and a public trust scholar at the University of Minnesota.

The authors note that this argument for the application of the wildlife trust doctrine should not be construed as an appeal on behalf of the gray wolf.

“It’s not about protecting any particular species. It’s about how we ensure we have adequate protection for all imperiled species under state-led management. Not all species are a perfect fit for federal protection, so this is a better long-term solution,” Bruskotter said.

“There is a middle ground here, and there is a legal process for defining this middle ground. States have an obligation to maintain, at minimum, a viable population of a species that has been removed from the endangered species list.”

Better clarity about state management could also apply to the case of the grizzly bear, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stands ready to delist in the greater Yellowstone region. As part of a recent plan to remove protection, federal officials asked states to agree to certain management practices under a series of memoranda of understanding. A federal court rejected the plan because the memoranda were not legally binding – states could not be compelled to conserve.

“This court-made law could be that regulatory mechanism,” Bruskotter said, noting that this represents how the wildlife trust doctrine’s application could support delisting a previously threatened species. “This common law could have been used to help remove grizzly bears from protection because it could have provided the regulatory mechanism the court sought in that case.”

Apr 152011

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.

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Aug 092010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

The Rocky Mountain gray wolves are back on the Endangered Species List after a federal judge ruled last week that the government did not follow the law in removing the wolves from federal protections last year.

The new ruling means that the wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho that claimed 260 wolves during the 2009-2010 hunting season will not resume this fall.

Environmental groups had fought the delisting, which was made official in April 2009, because they believe the wolves — reintroduced into the region in the 1990s — are not fully recovered and need continued protection.

A coalition of environmental groups argued to the court that the 2009 delisting did not follow the rules of the ESA, because it removed protections for the wolves in Montana and Idaho, but left the wolves in Wyoming listed as endangered. The judge agreed that subdividing the populations of naturally connected wolves was illegal according to ESA requirements.

With the ruling, all the wolves in the U.S., are now under federal protections, included those in the Great Lakes and the Southwest.

“We’re thrilled that wolves, all wolves, are back on the Endangered Species Lists,” said Matt Skoglund, a wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council, echoing the sentiments of many others in the 13 groups that fought for the wolves in court.

Earthjustice led the legal case, backed by the NRDC, Sierra Club, The Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Friends of the Clearwater, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Oregon Wild, Cascadia Wildlands Project, Western Watersheds Project, Wildlands Network, and Hells Canyon Preservation Council.

The new decision opens the way for the federal government to revise its recovery plan for the wolves, which has set 300 wolves (with 30 breeding pairs) as a bare minimum for sustaining the population.

Environmentalists believe a population that small, spread across the Northwest, would endanger the wolves’ long-term survival.

The best science suggests that a sustainable population would number at least 2,000 wolves, Skoglund said. And according to a news statement from the coalition, the wolf population could need to be as high as 5,000 in the region.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting in 2009 was preceded by an effort in 2008 to delist the wolves, and there has been court wrangling over the issue throughout the past decade. Opponents of protecting the wolves have argued that they are predators and a nuisance to ranchers. While proponents have pointed out that ranchers can report livestock kills by wolves, and apply for compensation. Meanwhile, there’s pressure from hunters to have a wolf season.

Throughout the charged debates, suits and counter-actions, wildlife advocates have maintained that the federal government needs a more realistic plan for helping the wolves survive, a plan in which packs can intermingle across distances (which requires sufficient numbers of wolves), thereby maintaining a strong genetic line and serving their niche as top predators in the food chain.
“This is the sixth court ruling invalidating removal of Endangered Species Act protections for wolves,” said Michael Robinson, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“It’s time for the Obama administration to step back from removing wolf protections until they’ve been recovered in a larger portion of their range, including additional areas like the southern Rocky Mountains, Cascade Mountains and elsewhere.”

Those fighting for the wolves have also noted that they are not only valuable to hunters, but vital to maintaining a healthy eco-system, and an even bigger draw to tourists, who flock to the Yellowstone area to view the animals.

“In addition to attracting tourists and boosting the economy, wolves are an important part of America’s wild legacy and living with wolves and other wildlife is a fundamental part of life in the West,” said Sierra Club’s Montana spokesman Bob Clark.

The U.S. government has not announced whether it will revise the wolves’ overall protection plan by raising the minimum numbers or appeal Friday’s ruling.  Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland has said in a statement that the Idaho and Montana wolves will remain protected until Wyoming’s “has instituted an adequate management program, similar to those of Idaho and Montana.” The USFWS did not consider Wyoming’s previous plan to be workable. It required only a small number of breeding pairs to survive. Critics say it treated wolves much as the law treats coyotes, as open game.

For now, many advocates are breathing a sigh of relief that the wolves may have narrowly escaped another bloody hunting season.

“This decision is great news for wolves in the northern Rockies, and a strong rebuke for those who would rather see wolves persecuted than protected,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation with The Humane Society of the United States. “The government’s decision to delist wolves would have led to widespread killings by trophy hunters, undermined wildlife conservation, and set the stage for the hunting and trapping of other imperiled species.”

Copyright © 2010 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Mar 192010
Image: Karen Laubenstein, USFWS

Bald eagle. Image: Karen Laubenstein, USFWS

By Kate Nolan
Green Right Now

The recovery of North American bald eagles is a triumph for the Endangered Species Act.

One of the first species proposed for listing under the Act in 1973, bald eagles in the lower 48 states grew from a failing population of just 400 breeding pairs to 8,000-9,000 before they left the ESA list in August 2007.

A ban on the insecticide DDT initially halted the deadly assault on the species, but it was the Act’s sustained defense of eagle breeding zones that allowed the birds to multiply exponentially over the 34 years of protection.

DDT (which reduces the bird’s ability to reproduce) is still banned, and breeding areas will remain protected during a monitoring period that may last 20 years.

Now, almost three years since delisting, information is emerging on the condition of the birds. Much looks promising, but concerns linger, such as the risk of lead poisoning, illegal shootings and a controversy over whether eagles in the Southwest still need ESA protection.

A comparative eagle count is expected this spring, in mid April,  when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service releases a national population estimate. Based on a survey conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,  the report will provide detailed information on specific geographic areas that can be compared to earlier surveys to assess growth.

Eagles_boxSome numbers have already appeared informally, showing continued expansion in Delaware, Arkansas and the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge area, which borders four states (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois) and is something of a magnet for eagles.

The Refuge was expected to draw more than 5,000 migrating eagles this winter. In Minnesota alone, authorities have counted 700 nests; the state has the largest bald eagle population outside Alaska.

But beyond the numbers, some troubling details have emerged.

Lead suspicions

In Iowa, host to 2,000 to 4,000 migratory eagles every year, bird rehabilitation centers are reporting high lead levels in the eagles they are treating.

“Our database shows that in 2009, 26 eagles died in Iowa from ingesting lead. We shoot deer here with lead slugs. If animals are wounded and not retrieved, the eagles later feed off of it and absorb the lead,” said Kay Neumann of SOAR, a raptor rehabilitation group in Dedham, Iowa.

Lead damages nerves, and lead bullets have been banned in California because it was killing condors there. Few studies have focused on the effects of lead bullets on eagles.

Neumann found that 60 percent of eagles treated in Iowa had lead poisoning. Of the 78 with lead in their systems, only six could be released. She and other rehabbers are pushing for use of non-lead bullets. Wildlife authorities in Iowa and numerous other states encourage hunters to use copper and other types of ammunition.

In response to delisting, Iowa is setting up a program for monitoring the state’s 250 nests.

Image: Dave Menke, USFWS

Image: Dave Menke, USFWS

“Eagles are doing well in Iowa; there are more than ever. But we are approaching it a little more rigorously now from a research point of view,” said Stephanie Shepherd, a state wildlife biologist. The greatest concern is agricultural run-off. Chemicals from crops get into waterways and fish, and eagles eat the toxic fish.

“Lead is on our radar screen, but there are no good studies on how prevalent the poison is in a population of eagles,” Shepherd said.

Lead has a more acute impact when it involves shooting eagles. The law on “taking” eagles has changed somewhat since delisting. Under ESA protection, eagles could be disturbed or killed under specific circumstances, with a permit. Two federal laws still prohibit hunting of eagles, but permits remain available for removing nuisance eagles. New rules decrease the radius of the area around a nest that is protected.

Wildlife officials around the country report illegal eagle takings are not rampant, but there have been incidents. In 2009, a Florida man was convicted and sent to prison for shooting an eagle. And in Iowa, an unidentified hunter illegally shot a juvenile eagle that was feeding on a deer carcass.

“Shooting eagles and hawks was a huge problem in the 1950s, but shooting these birds has decreased greatly since then,” said Greg Burcher, Director of Bird Conservation at National Audubon Society. Sometimes eagles compete with fishermen, but rarely clash violently.

According to Burcher, the biggest long-term threats to bald eagles are coastal development and water quality issues.

Arizona birds retain protection

Water is a key survival factor for eagles in Arizona, which remain the only bald eagles in the U.S. still listed. Concerns for their viability have fueled a lasting struggle between conservationists and federal officials, culminating in a lawsuit that has at least postponed delisting the birds.

The Arizona population provides a good illustration of what it takes to bring back a failing flock.

The eagles had dwindled to five pair in the 1970s, when a local Audubon group teamed with the U.S. Forest Service to start a nest-watcher program that remains a key to recovery. Twenty watchers sign up each year to camp out for months in the vicinity of the mostly remote breeding areas, record bird behavior and alert authorities about problems. From the nest-watching activities has grown a consortium of Audubon groups, state and federal authorities, Indian tribes and public utilities that work together to protect and monitor nests and coax the eagle numbers upward.

Image: USFWS

Image: USFWS

The ESA’s habitat protection ensured that the state’s burgeoning development and cattle and mining activities wouldn’t take down the trees and cliff sides needed for nests. By now, 61 nesting areas and as many as 50 breeding pairs have been identified, but state biologists say the population remains fragile because it is so small.

Resources budgeted for the bald eagle recovery have been based on their endangered species status. So, when the Fish and Wildlife Service began efforts to delist eagles nationally, conservationists feared resources would dry up.

Maricopa Audubon and the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to have the Arizona eagles listed separately as a “distinct population segment.” A fish-eating bird in the Sonoran desert, these bald eagles have made some dramatic adaptations to the heat. They are smaller, mate earlier in the season, and their eggs have thicker shells than other eagles. Some evidence suggests that, unlike other eagles, they fare better during drought than rainy periods.

But the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the petition in 2006, so the groups sued in federal court. Subsequently the court ordered federal authorities to reassess the eagles.  In March, government officials submitted a new assessment, with more outside input, that drew the same conclusion as the first: the Arizona eagles were significantly different, had threats to their survival – but were not important to the survival of eagles in general and therefore should be delisted.

The court has not yet ruled on whether the finding is legal, but alarm is spreading among nature-watchers.

“It’s a very serious problem. It means more water transfers away from eagle nesting areas to cities and new developments. Eagles are going to go down the tubes if they aren’t protected here,” said Dr. Bob Witzeman, conservation chair of Maricopa Audubon.

Witzeman founded the state nest watch program and hired the state’s first nest guardian. In Arizona, eagle survival requires clear abundant streams. Mining and cattle activities can cloud the water with algae and sediment so eagles can’t see the fish they need to eat. Witzeman worries that without the force of the ESA, no one will have the authority to keep waterways unspoiled for eagles.

Because the complicated eagle support committee remains in force, state wildlife biologists are optimistic for the current breeding season. Nest watchers have observed 44 babies, but some eagle pairs haven’t laid their eggs yet. In 2009, 48 babies survived.

Historic rains have stirred up waterways, but in the words of one biologist, “there’s a hell of a fish population this year.”

James Driscoll, an Arizona Game and Fish Department biologist who has worked with Arizona eagles since 1991 when the annual baby count was 18, sees no looming problems, except for the state bureaucracy.

The eagle program is supported by so-called Heritage funds derived from the state lottery. They are increasingly eyed as a solution to a worsening state budget crisis.

“If so, we’ll have to reprioritize. We can’t lose 25 percent of our funding and continue to do the same thing,” said Driscoll.

Copyright © 2010 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Mar 042009

(Update: A doctor with the Phoenix Zoo told the Arizona Daily Star that the capture and tranquilizing of Macho B likely aggravated the animal’s kidney problem, but noted that officials who inadvertently captured the animal two weeks ago had followed protocol.)

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

This week the Obama Administration shored up the Endangered Species Act, restoring a rule rescinded by the Bush Administration that requires federal agencies to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service when their activities could harm threatened or endangered species.

Obama announced the decision on Tuesday at the Interior Department, noting that “the work of scientists and experts in my administration, including right here in the Interior Department, will be respected.”

It was a statement that many conservationists could embrace as they work to maintain habitats, preserve federal park lands and stabilize animal populations under threat such as the Rocky Mountain gray wolves, the American Pika, polar bears, Atlantic lobsters, salmon and seals, among others.

But the week began with a poignant note about the perils facing wildlife in the United States when an aged jaguar — possibly the very last jaguar living in the wild in the United States — had to be euthanized.

The wild cat, known as Macho B and believed to be 15 to 16 years old had recently been outfitted with a radio collar by Arizona state authorities. When he was later discovered to be suffering from kidney failure, the state game officials had the 118-pound cat euthanized.

It’s not known if the stress of the earlier capture contributed to the jaguar’s death; his demise though is believed to mark the probable extinction of the jaguar in the United States, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Macho B was the only jaguar known to be living in the United States; he had been photographed repeatedly since 1996 in southern Arizona. Three other jaguars, at least one of them thought to have been killed in Mexico, have also been recorded in the United States since 1996, but none are known to be living now,” the center reported in a statement.

“This is a major setback for the jaguar, particularly given that the border wall is making it much harder for jaguars to reoccupy their ancestral homes in the southern United States,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We are deeply saddened.”

Bleak as the situation appears, Robinson believes there is hope for a restored jaguar population because the Center for Biological Diversity has already sued to try to get a federal recovery plan in place. The non-profit is due in federal district court in Tucson on March 23 to discuss its lawsuit against a Bush-era U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refusal to develop a recovery plan and designate “critical habitat” for the jaguar.

Jaguars continue to populate parts of Mexico. They once ranged from the Bay Area of California to the Appalachian Mountains in the United States. Their population was decimated by decades of habitat loss, hunting for pelts and “persecution for fear of livestock losses,” including “systemic killing” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Robinson.

Because there are still wild jaguars in northern Mexico, a recovery plan for the animal in the United States remains feasible, he said.

“The border wall doesn’t extend across the entire border, as yet. The recovery plan could look at many different options, including reintroduction and removal of all or portions of the wall,” he said.

“A recovery team developing the recovery plan would identify their best remaining habitats. Potential areas include the Sky Islands in southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico (where this and other jaguars recently known to be in the U.S. lived) and the Gila National Forest and Mogollon Rim in respectively western NM and eastern AZ. But the team could also look further afield, since jaguars once ranged from east to west coast,” he added.

“Macho’s legacy should be action to develop a science-based recovery plan and protection of the areas they call home to ensure their survival.”

Copyright © 2009 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media

Jan 212009

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Amid the fanfare of the inauguration, President Barack Obama went to work on Tuesday, and among his first acts was to stop pending last-minute regulation changes by his predecessor.

The move gave the endangered Rocky Mountain Gray Wolves yet another reprieve in the arduous, years-long battle over whether or not they should continue to receive federal protection.

In recent months, the Bush Administration has pushed through a succession of new rules and regulations, many aimed at environmental projects, trying to beat the clock on its expiring reign. (It’s not an unusual game. Bill Clinton also made many last minute changes – that were later stopped by Bush.)

These Bush Administration tinkerings aimed to keep some of Bush’s and Vice President Dick Cheney’s pet ideas alive by empowering federal agencies to bypass certain scientific review requirements for developments in forests, near power plants and dams; conscripting the Endangered Species Act so it cannot be used to fight global warming and overturning a ban on loaded firearms in national parks. Continue reading »

Jan 082009

By Harriet Blake
Green Right Now

In its waning days, the outgoing Bush administration is promoting oil-shale development in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming by passing regulations that would open public lands to oil-shale exploration, leasing and development. In November, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management put these regulations into effect to develop an oil shale program that the bureau says could add 800 billion barrels of oil from land in the Western United States.

In response, earlier this week, 11 environmental groups notified the administration and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of their intent to file federal lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act. The BLM has 60 days to respond. The environmental groups, which include the Sierra Club, the Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, among others, want the administration to consider the effects that commercial oil-shale development will have on endangered species. Continue reading »

Sep 182008

By Barbara Kessler

Gray wolves, all but de-listed from the Endangered Species Act protections through a series of government steps this year, may have won a reprieve. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official, the government will be withdrawing its declaration that the animals are fully recovered.

The move, reported by the Associated Press, follows a federal court decision this summer that sided with environmentalists arguing that the wolves need continued protections. Continue reading »

May 142008

Photo: Susanne Miller / USFWS

By Barbara Kessler

The polar bear will be granted “threatened” status under the Endangered Species Act, the Bush Administration announced today, because the Arctic ice the animal needs to survive is shrinking and scientific projections show it will jeopardize the polar bear’s survival prospects for decades to come. But the decision, delivered with caveats limiting its scope, will likely chill environmentalists’ hopes that protection for the polar bear could be pivotal in the fight against global warming. Continue reading »