- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2020

DENVER — Trying to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list has been like prying a pack of the predators off a fat elk carcass: messy, more than a little risky and with no guarantee of success.

With gray wolves thriving since their 1995 reintroduction, a dogfight is looming as the Fish and Wildlife Service and House lawmakers ramp up their efforts to delist the animals, setting up another battle over the Endangered Species Act with environmentalists.

Reps. Collin C. Peterson, Minnesota Democrat, and Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, jumped back into the fray last week with legislation to end the gray wolf’s endangered species status in the Lower 48.

“Gray wolf populations have reached sustainable levels, and it is well past time to return authority over their management to the states,” Mr. Peterson said in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation will allow states to protect the livelihood of their livestock owners and preserve a healthy balance of wild animal populations.”

The bill would accomplish via legislation what the Fish and Wildlife Service has been trying to do for years as the apex predator’s numbers have soared to an estimated 6,000, only to be thwarted by the courts after lawsuits from wildlife groups.

The agency is expected to release in the next few months its final rule declaring the gray wolf recovered in the Lower 48 and removing its Endangered Species Act protections. Environmental groups have vowed to file a legal challenge as soon as the rule is issued.

The Center for Biological Diversity called the proposed rule when it was introduced a year ago “a death sentence for gray wolves across the country.”

Collette Adkins, the center’s carnivore conservation director, said the delisting is premature given that the wolf has bounced back in some regions but not across its historic range.

“What the Fish and Wildlife Service has done for over a decade has been to try to prematurely remove protections from wolves, saying, ‘Oh, if we just have them in a few spots, that’s good enough,’” Ms. Adkins said. “But the Endangered Species Act requires more.”

Wildlife groups like hers “want to make sure that the Endangered Species Act continues to be this powerful tool to protect valuable wildlife, so we can’t let the Fish and Wildlife Service get away with just having recovery in a couple of areas and saying, ‘That’s good enough,’” she said.

Putting states back in charge

The gray wolf was delisted in the Northern Rockies in 2011, but that was accomplished through a rider added to a must-pass budget bill in the Senate. The rider included language saying the delisting “shall not be subject to judicial review.”

Not coincidentally, the Peterson/Bishop bill contains the same language.

“Gray wolves have been recovered for a long time now, and this bill will bring finality to the issue by allowing states to manage,” Mr. Bishop said in a statement.

A similar bill narrowly passed the Republican-controlled House in November 2018 before stalling in the Senate.

The wolf could also become an issue in the November elections. In Colorado, the ballot will include an initiative directing the state wildlife commission to “reintroduce and manage gray wolves on designated lands west of the Continental Divide by 2023.”

Since it was reintroduced 25 years ago in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, the gray wolf has met and exceeded its original population goals as its range expands. Wolves have been spotted in recent years in North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Missouri, Indiana, Illinois, Nebraska and Kansas.

The largest wolf population, about 4,400, is in the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. Several packs have been documented in Northern California, western Oregon and western Washington, according to the agency.

“The ESA is not designed to permanently protect individual animals from hunting or other active management,” the agency said in its proposed delisting Q&A. “The purpose of the ESA is to prevent the extinction of imperiled species and to recover them. Once the threshold of recovery has been met, we can — and must — return their management to state and tribal wildlife agencies.”

Delisting opponents argue that the states have been too quick to approve hunting and trapping of wolves, placing the species at risk.

“It really shows why we need to maintain federal protections because as soon as management went back to the states, we saw really aggressive trophy hunting and trapping,” Ms. Adkins said. “I don’t want to see that in other places like in the Pacific Northwest.”

State authorities argue that the revenue from hunting tags goes to support wildlife habitat and protection, and ranchers and farmers have long insisted that they need to be able to protect their livestock from predators.

“It’s time to allow farmers and ranchers to lawfully defend their livestock against predatory animals,” Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said in a statement.

The gray wolf dust-up has also reopened debates about what constitutes a recovered species and whether the Endangered Species Act is helping or hurting.

Supporters argue that the 1973 law has resulted in saving 99% of listed species from extinction. Opponents counter that less than 3% of those receiving protections have been declared recovered and removed from the list.

“All of this can really be traced back to the Endangered Species Act,” said Austin Hacker, a spokesman for the House Natural Resources Committee Republicans. “As vaguely as it’s written, it really opened up the door for these special interest litigants and activist judges to essentially dictate endangered species policy, and that’s exactly what we’re seeing.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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