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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

Mar 102010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Every so often I pause and wonder about the Rocky Mountain wolves, which were de-listed from protection under the Endangered Species Act in 2009 and hunted for sport for the first time in decades.

I have thought about the wolves periodically all this winter, as they’ve been hunted in Idaho. As of today, 172 wolves have been killed there, just shy of the 220 kill limit set by the state, where the wolf season ends March 31. Last fall, in Montana, 72 wolves were killed, just short of the 75 wolf limit.

I’m not sure why their plight touched me so much. I think it’s their intelligence and curiosity that tugs at my emotions. Sensing humans nearby, they will peek out from their cover to see, only to get shot. And there’s the fact that they’re pack animals, dependent on an enduring family structure and very much like us in that regard.

The wolves have been top of mind for others. Many environmentalists have been furious about the hunting and want the wolves brought back under ESA protection. They’ve sued and a hearing is anticipated in federal court this spring. They argue that the wolf population, which stands at around 1,200 in the three U.S. states they’ve repopulated, should not be considered “recovered” until the total is closer to 2,000. Their scientists say this would ensure a healthy population and enough family packs that could interbreed across distances.

The federal guidelines for the wolves’ recovery, though, only require that the states leave 300 wolves alive — an unsustainable level say groups such as EarthJustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council and others that are suing.

There are ranchers, though, who would argue that’s more than enough wolves for the modern West, which has tense co-existence with these animals. Even more than tense when wolves take a swipe out of a sheep herd or run a lethal assault on groups of calves.

Environmentalists respond that ranchers are entitled to reimbursement for livestock losses, as well as help from groups like Defenders of Wildlife that assist ranchers with techniques to protect livestock. They also point out that ranchers can legally shoot predator wolves.

There’s another argument made on behalf of wolves — that they’re necessary top-level predators.

It doesn’t take a degree in environmental biology to understand that the Rocky Mountain region needs healthy predators in its wild areas. Top predators elevate and assure vigorous animal populations throughout the food chain. That’s how nature intended it.

If humans remove the top predators, they risk a cascading negative effect on wildlife systems. Or as my husband says, they risk coyotes. When the wolves are gone, the coyotes will become the top predators in the once Wild West. Will we be better off? Then we’ll have to shoot all the coyotes. (People already do this with little provocation.) What’s next? A handful of wolverine. They’re so scarce, you can barely find them.

But you get the idea. We can squeeze down on the entire system, until we have just a handful of smaller carnivores, a few hundred birds of prey. We’d have a glorified zoo. See how the system is out of whack?

And even as I write this I can hear some rancher saying, so we restore the West on my back? At what price? My herd?

After awhile, the back and forth will wear you out. Leaving aside the debate over how many wolves are too many or too few. One thing seems true: the great Mountain West  just ain’t what it used to be, and redefining matters won’t be easy.

Ron Aasheim, a spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says the answer lies in finding a good balance. And, he adds, that will be discovered at some point below today’s levels of wolves. How can you tell there are too many? Easy, they’re claiming too much livestock.

“We continue to take out depredating wolves. It’s pretty clear that we still have wolves where there’s no tolerance from the livestock community,” he says. And by that he means, a justified intolerance.

Aasheim says he also understands the desire to save the wolves from extinction in the U.S. Montana supports a recovered population and even has a law that says so. What’s more, this is the state that brought back the Grizzly bear to healthy numbers, he says.

Wildlife advocates need to see that there are life-and-death issues on both sides of the fence. He cites a recent two-day rampage in which wolves killed 122 sheep. “We have to reach a balance of what is reasonable depredation on livestock. We know there will be some depredation.”

What about that government reimbursement for losses? Those funds are limited, he says.

Of course Montana’s 72 wolf take, if you’re going to be practical about it, was far less than where Idaho set the bar, at 220.

Idaho has more wolves in total than Montana, in the neighborhood of 900, and declining space for them. While Montana was derided this past season for killing a pack of wolves that lived in Yellowstone (when they roamed off  protected park lands), Idaho has shown a nasty streak with regard to the wolves. Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter seemed to lower the level of discussion there right off when he declared he wanted to be the first one to take a wolf. (He’s more circumspect, but still frustrated in news releases on the topic.)

Now, as the Idaho season comes to a close the end of this month, come rumblings that some people are dissatisfied with the number of wolves taken. Idaho game officials are concerned about dwindling elk populations in certain areas, and told the Idaho Statesman that additional wolves might need to be taken. This news and more can be explored in a Switchboard blog by Sylvia Fallon, a staff scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Copyright © 2010 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Jan 052010

Howlsnow (Photo: Wikimedia)

(The following was originally posted Dec. 30, 2009 in the NRDC Switchboard blog, under Saving Wildlife and Wild Places)

2009: The Year in Wolves

By Matt Skoglund

2009 was a dismal, tragic year for Northern Rockies wolves.  They lost all protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), were hunted for the first time in Montana and Idaho (and continue to be hunted in Idaho), and were killed by various causes in record numbers.  In all, almost one third — one third! — of the Northern Rockies wolf population was killed in 2009.

The good news is that NRDC and other conservation groups have not relented one iota in our fight on behalf on Northern Rockies wolves, and our lawsuit to restore their ESA protections should be ruled upon in 2010.

Here is a recap of 2009 for Canis lupus in the Northern Rockies:

January 14, 2009:  Dubya the Decider, wishing to go out with a bang, announced that wolves in Montana and Idaho were being removed from the endangered species list, but wolves in Wyoming would remain listed.

January 20, 2009:  Freshly inaugurated President Obama put on hold the wolf delisting rule — and all other last-minute rules and regulations issued by the Bush administration — for further review.  Hope was restored, as many assumed the Obama Administration, with its pledged commitment to science, would scrap the premature, scientifically baseless, politically motivated Bush rule on wolves.

March 6, 2009:  Hope was crushed, as Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he was rubber-stamping the Bush rule on wolves and removing ESA protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho, but not Wyoming.  (Six months later, a federal judge found that this decision was politically crafted and thus likely illegal.)

May 4, 2009:  The delisting rule went into effect, and wolves in Montana and Idaho lost all federal protections under the Endangered Species Act.

June 2, 2009:  NRDC and twelve other conservation organizations, represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit to restore ESA protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho.

July 8, 2009:  The State of Montana approved the state’s first-ever fair-chase public wolf hunt with a kill quota of 75 wolves — or about 15% of its population.

August 17, 2009:  Montana’s neighbor to the west, Idaho, approved its first-ever fair-chase public wolf hunt with a kill quota of 255 wolves — or about 30% of its population.  (And neither Montana’s nor Idaho’s quota included any of the wolves killed by government “control” actions, natural mortality, or illegal poaching.)

August 20, 2009:  NRDC and the other conservation groups in the delisting lawsuit filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop the planned wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho from proceeding.

September 1, 2009:  Idaho’s premature wolf hunt opened.

September 8, 2009:  U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy denied our motion to stop the wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho, but, on a very bright note, he found that we are likely to win our delisting lawsuit.  Specifically, he concluded, “The [U.S. Fish and Wildlife] Service has distinguished a natural population of wolves based on a political line, not the best available science.  That, by definition, seems arbitrary and capricious.”

September 15, 2009:  Montana’s poorly planned wolf hunt opened only in the backcountry, with the rest of the state scheduled to open on October 25th.  The result?  Multiple wilderness wolves and wolves from Yellowstone National Park were quickly killed, which the state must have seen coming with the way it structured the hunt.

October 13, 2009:  With too many wolves from Yellowstone killed just outside the Park’s boundary (because Montana failed to implement a buffer zone around the Park to protect its famous and important wolves), Montana shut down the wolf hunt north of Yellowstone.

November 16, 2009:  Montana’s wolf hunt ends, with 72 wolves killed in the hunt.

December 2009:  Two ominous reports about wolves in the Northern Rockies surfaced.  The first described how Yellowstone’s wolf population is shrinking and the annual census of the Park’s population is expected to be the lowest in 10 years.  The second broke the worrying news that a record number of Northern Rockies wolves — more than 500 — have been killed in 2009 by hunters, government agents, ranchers, poachers, and natural causes.  This astronomical level of mortality amounts to almost one third of the last official population estimate.

December 24, 2009Lynne Stone, a fearless wolf advocate in Idaho, received a scary, threatening e-mail from a wolf hater there.  The e-mail simply said, “Merry Cristmas” (spelled without the “h”), and it included a morbid photo:

A wolf shot in Idaho

Heading into 2010, this disturbing photo and sinister e-mail (sent the night of Christmas Eve) remind us of what wolves are up against in the West — and why NRDC’s work on behalf of Northern Rockies wolves is more important than ever.

On January 28, 2010, the last brief in our wolf lawsuit will be filed.  Following a hearing in federal court, Judge Molloy will decide whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act when it removed ESA protections from wolves in Montana and Idaho earlier this year.  Hopefully he concludes that the ESA was violated and restores ESA protections for those states’ wolves.

After a deadly 2009, let’s hope 2010 is a better year for wolves in the Northern Rockies — with less killing, less spinning of the facts by government bureaucrats, and less politically driven decision-making.  Let’s hope wolves . . . can be wolves.

Happy New Year.  Howl.

(Reposted with permission from the Natural Resources Defense Council. Skoglund is a wildlife advocate based in Livingston, Montana You can read his blog and learn more about wildlife at the NRDC website.)