Thursday, August 27, 2009

Obama, Salazar, and the wolves

Last year, the Bush administration decided to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list. Fortunately, they decided too late and that rule was not codified before a new President Obama halted all rules issued by the Bush administration but not finalized. Environmentalists were elated because they, and a number of scientists, believed that it was premature to delist the gray wolf. This celebration, as it turned out, was premature, as the Obama administration has gone forward with the Bush administration plan.

Between hunting, predator control, and habitat loss, the gray wolf was mostly extinct in the lower 48 states by the 1970's, except in northern Minnesota and Isle Royale in Michigan. This was a tragedy not only in that a species was nearly lost, but in the terrible effect it had on the ecosystems that wolves inhabited. The loss of wolves allowed populations of prey such as elk to skyrocket, threatening some plant species and other animal species that depend on those plants, like beavers. These effects rippled far--losing wolves can even cause greater stream bed erosion, hurting fish species! Coyote populations also skyrocket in the absence of the wolf, causing another ripple through the ecosystem (see more on the effects here, here, and especially here).

Fortunately the gray wolf went on the endangered species list way back in 1974, right after the Endangered Species Act passed (signed by Richard Nixon!).

In many ways the wolf is a success story of the ESA. Wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies in 1995, and now are once again an important part of the Northern Rockies ecosystem. There are now 1645 wolves between Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

In 1974, Fish and Wildlife Service biologists set the goal for the Northern Rockies gray wolf recovery to be 300 wolves, so they've well surpassed that goal. Now interest groups such as hunters, ranchers, and developers are calling not only for the wolf to be delisted, but that it be hunted and reduced.

President Obama's Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, did their bidding and delisted the wolf this March. Because Wyoming didn't have an acceptable wolf management plan, the wolf remains endangered in that state, but is now unprotected in Idaho and Montana. As a result, Idaho has issued 70,000 wolf hunting permits and will allow 255 wolves to be killed, and Montana will allow 75 more to be killed.

Although the wolf population is sustainable according to the 1974 goal, more recent science suggests that the goal should be far higher--probably somewhere between 2000 and 2500 to prevent genetic loss. 225 scientists wrote a letter to Secretary Salazar protesting his decision.

Why did he do it? It's pretty straightforward--mostly the influence of special interest groups. Hunters just want to hunt the wolf, and they don't want the wolf to reduce the game populations that they hunt, even if that benefits the ecosystem as a whole. Some ranchers are still vehemently opposed to wolf recovery, despite the fact that wolves account for less than 1% of livestock deaths. (Coyotes are a far bigger problem than wolves, and as mentioned earlier, wolf recovery keeps coyote populations in check.). Developers want to be able to build homes in wolf habitat areas of the Northern Rockies wilderness.

In addition to the influence of special interests, fear and hostility toward wolves is part of our myth about the American West, as Verlyn Klinkenborg's NY Times op-ed describes here.

As Klinkenborg writes, the Interior department isn't as beholden to special interests as it was under Bush. Yet in the case of the wolves, we get the same bad decisions not based on the latest science. Is this what environmentalists expected when we part of the progressive coalition that did the grunt work to get Obama elected?

Environmental groups should have been far more critical of the choice of Salazar to be Secretary to begin with. The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the most effective and principled groups out there, were among the minority that did (here), and they proved to be prescient. As they document, Salazar consistently voted in the Senate in favor of drilling, in favor of livestock grazing on public lands, and against endangered species and wilderness protections, just not quite as often as the Republicans. In fact, he's a rancher himself with a vested interest in how we manage public lands.

It's time to take the kid gloves off with Salazar, and Obama for that matter. They may be better than Bush and his drilling, mining, and logging-loving Interior department, but that's not good enough. With the planet under siege by global warming and many other anthropogenic threats, we need more wilderness protection, less logging, mining, and drilling on public lands, and better endangered species protections, not just a return to slightly better Clinton-era standards.

You can help start to hold them accountable by joining in this Defenders of Wildlife (another aggressive and effective group) action alert here urging President Obama to reverse Salazar's decision to delist the wolf. And if you have the money (I unfortunately do not), contribute to their and the Center's efforts to fight this decision and court and stop the hunts, which unfortunately began yesterday. As I wrote earlier, the science tells us that not only is the wolf at risk, but the health of the entire Northern Rockies ecosystem.

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