DENVER — Canadian gray wolves are by all accounts thriving in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes region, but getting the wolf's removal from the Endangered Species List won't be easy.
Even as children in rural New Mexico take refuge from wolves in "kid cages" at school bus stops, wildlife lovers and environmentalists are fighting tooth and nail the proposal by the Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the species.
The standoff over wolves comes as the latest example of conflict over the Endangered Species Act, which marks its 40th anniversary this year amid what critics describe as its use as a tool by environmental groups to stunt economic growth and development.
"As is obvious with the wolf, we're talking about a species that is not in danger of extinction by any definition or any standard," said Greg Walcher, former head of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and author of Smoking Them Out: The Theft of the Environment and How to Take It Back (American Tradition Institute, 2013.).
"There's no way you can escape the conclusion that there's some agenda at work here other than the Endangered Species Act or other than the environment. It's all about power and money and control," Mr. Walcher said. "There's a reason they haven't reintroduced grizzly bears in California, and of course there's a lot of cynical Westerners like me who say if they want to reintroduce wolves, let's put them in Boulder where they want them. But that isn't where they go."
Advocates oppose delisting
Wolf advocates may or may not have the facts on their side, but there's no doubt they have the passion: Every one of the 100-plus speakers at the agency's hearing last week in Denver's Paramount Theater testified against the delisting proposal. Some of them cried during their comments, while others waved signs and wore wolf hats.
"I beg you guys not to delist these animals," said Phillip Trella, a volunteer at the Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center in Divide. "Don't be blinded by the politics of those who wish to hunt and massacre these beautiful creatures. To exterminate the wolves is downright wrong. Wolves cannot vote, but those who embrace them can."
And Colorado doesn't even have wolves in the wild, at least not yet. But the turnout at the Denver hearing was typical of what the Fish and Wildlife Service has encountered as it gathers public comments in anticipation of a 2014 ruling.
"Over 900,000 public comments have been submitted, and probably 90 percent of those are against delisting the wolf," said David Spady, a filmmaker and media consultant with Americans for Prosperity-California. "The support for the wolf is very adamant, especially within those groups, and it has taken on this iconic sort of mystical status with a lot of these environmental groups."
Drowned out in the din are the voices of rural Westerners who have struggled to live alongside the predators. They are the focus of Mr. Spady's 2013 documentary, "Wolves in Government Clothing."
Mr. Spady spoke in Denver as part of a screening tour for his film, funded by Americans for Prosperity, which he is bringing to every city on the Fish and Wildlife Service's public hearing schedule.
Tourism versus safety
The wolves have drawn tourists to Yellowstone National Park, but they've also brought economic challenges and public safety concerns to rural communities across the Northern Rockies, where the animals were flown in by helicopter from Canada and released in 1996 as part of the federal government's wolf-restoration program.
In the film, residents talk about losing livestock, horses and dogs to wolves, along with hunting revenue stemming from depleted elk and deer herds. Wolf attacks on humans are rare, but locals say they've been frightened by wolves approaching them on remote roads and appearing on front porches.
In Catron County, N.M., local authorities built wooden outhouse-sized structures called "kid cages" to protect schoolchildren at bus stops from the Mexican gray wolf.
"The wolf issue is an example, especially with the kid cages, about how you're putting the interest of wildlife over the interests of human beings," Mr. Spady said. "Every American should be concerned about seeing kids in cages and wolves out wandering around freely."
There are an estimated 5,360 Canadian gray wolves in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes region. The wolf already has been delisted in the Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, as well as in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
The latest delisting proposal would cover states where the wolves are migrating, including Oregon and Washington, which have reported seven packs or about 40 animals per state. At least one wolf has been sighted in California, while Colorado and Utah are also seen as likely destinations for the wolves.
The Fish and Wildlife proposal would also keep the Mexican gray wolf on the list as an endangered subspecies, but return management to state wildlife agencies in Arizona and New Mexico. The wolf's population is estimated at about 75 between the two states.
At the Denver hearing, those testifying said they feared the delisting would result in an open hunting season on the wolves. In states where the species is delisted, state wildlife agencies have taken over managing the animals, and have allowed limited wolf hunting and trapping.
"I frankly am very ashamed of what we are doing to the wolf. I do not understand a nation that will bring back the wolf just to go out and hunt it to extinction again," said Barbara Burton, a Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center volunteer. "How do we know at what point to stop the hunting and the slaughter to prevent that?"
Wildlife groups argue that the wolf occupies only 8 percent of its historic range, but federal agents counter that their job is to protect the wolf from extinction, not restore the species to 100 percent of its previous habitat.
Mike Jimenez, wolf management and science coordinator for FWS Northern Rocky Mountains, said at the hearing that the agency's recovery programs have worked "exceptionally well." The recovery program has exceeded the agency's targets by as much as 300 percent.
"They've dramatically expanded the range of over 5,000 wolves in the Lower 48," Mr. Jimenez said. "We believe that this recovery will ensure that wolves will no longer be endangered in the Lower 48, and it's time to move forward."
The agency is accepting comment on the proposals until Dec. 17. The final public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 3 in Pinetop, Ariz.
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