- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 29, 2020

Federal wildlife officials announced Thursday the lifting of species protections for the gray wolf in the lower 48, heralding the decision as U.S. conservation triumph, but whether the Trump administration can keep the apex predator off the list is another question.

The Obama administration was unable to seal the deal after seeking in 2013 to delist the gray wolf in the contiguous states, while the Wyoming wolves jumped on and off the endangered-species list for years amid lawsuits and court decisions before being delisted in 2017.

Environmental groups have already vowed to fight the administration’s final rule, but Interior Secretary David Bernhardt insisted that after recovery efforts that began in the 1970s, the “strong and stable” U.S. gray wolf population of about 6,000 is no longer in jeopardy.

“After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery,” said Mr. Bernhardt, who announced the decision at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington. “Today’s announcement simply reflects the determination that this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law.”

More than 50 U.S. species, including the bald eagle, peregrine falcon and American alligator, have been recovered under the Endangered Species Act. The gray wolf marks the 13th species to be delisted under the Trump administration.

“The reemergence of the gray wolf in the United States is a great comeback story,” said Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Critics included Chelsea Clinton, who called it “terrible news for gray wolves and biodiversity,” and WildEarth Guardians, which pledged to file a lawsuit within 60 days to “challenge the premature removal of endangered species protections for gray wolves.”

“Although certain distinct populations of gray wolves have recovered and merit delisting, national wolf populations have not, and a nationwide delisting decision is not appropriate at this time,” said Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association cheered the delisting, calling it “an outstanding victory” and “the culmination of decades of work done by cattle producers and landowners nationwide to protect habitat ensuring wolf recover efforts were successful, even when impacts to their livelihoods were significant.”

“The road to recovery and delisting has been fraught with purely political lawsuits that promoted emotion over fact, and the facts are clear: the gray wolf population is recovered and states are well-equipped to manage this population,” said NCBA vice president Don Schiefelbein, a Minnesota rancher.

The agency’s efforts to delist the gray wolf began under President George W. Bush and continued in the Obama administration, but critics accused the White House of seeking to curry favor with the agriculture industry.

“Finalizing delisting of wolves a few days before an election is a gift to the ranching and agricultural interests, plain and simple,” said Lindsay Larris, WildEarth Guardians wildlife program director.

The final rule, which is slated to be published Nov. 3 after being proposed in March 2019, would return management of the gray wolf to the states and tribes in the Northern Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, where about 4,200 wolves now make their home.

The delisting also affects gray wolves expanding into Western Oregon and Washington, Northern California, where there are seven known breeding pairs, and Northwest Colorado. The wolves were previously delisted in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, as well as Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington.

Critics argued that the Northern Rockies delisting has placed the wolves in danger by allowing states to offer limited wolf hunting and trapping. Idaho Fish and Game reported 570 wolves killed in 2019-20 by hunters and traps, as well as vehicles and other causes.

“Delisting would remove what little legal protections wolves still have, and likely halt recovery in its tracks,” said WildEarth Guardians.

The wolf population has increased sixfold since dropping to about 1,000 at the time of its 1974 listing, “greatly exceeding the combined recovery goals for the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes populations,” said the Interior Department in a statement.

Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, said the delisting came after “one of the most successful species recoveries in history, despite the mounds of federal red tape and abusive litigation.”

“It’s unfortunate it took this long for the federal government to turn management back to the states, when in fact state management and expertise is what got us to where we are today,” Mr. Bishop said.

Colorado reintroduction

Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed this year the sighting of six wolves in the northwestern part of the state, and there could soon be more.

Colorado voters will decide Tuesday on a ballot measure directing the Parks and Wildlife Commission to create and implement a plan to restore gray wolves west of the continental divide, as well as “fairly compensate” livestock owners for their losses.

The measure, Proposition 114, would require about 10 wolves to be introduced by Dec. 31, 2023, at a cost of about $500,000.

Why not wait for the wolves to arrive on their own? “While there have been sightings in Colorado, it is uncertain gray wolves will establish a permanent population on their own,” said Colorado Blue Book argument.

The Yes on 114 campaign cited the move to lift federal endangered-species protections, saying it would put the wolves “at risk of losing the progress made to restore them to their natural habitats.”

“It’s on us to bring them home for good,” said the campaign, known as the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund.

Meanwhile, opponents have argued that the wolf would threaten the state’s moose population, livestock and domestic pets, and cited the Yes on 114 campaign’s out-of-state funding, whose sources include the Tides Center and “The 4-Hour Workweek” author and podcaster Tim Ferriss.

“Wolves, as apex predators, will impact our deer, elk and moose populations, and in Northwest Colorado, where hunting is a multi-million dollar industry, a decrease in wildlife populations would negatively impact our local economy,” said the Steamboat Pilot in a Sept. 30 editorial.

A Fish and Wildlife Service official said that the final rule, which goes into effect 60 days after being published, was made without regard to the Colorado ballot measure.

Fish and Wildlife Service director Aurelia Skipwith expressed confidence in the ability of state and tribal agencies to manage the species.

“Today is a win for the gray wolf and the American people,” she said. “I am grateful for these partnerships with States and Tribes and their commitment to sustainable management of wolves that will ensure the species long-term survival following this delisting.”

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