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Feds Plan to Strip Endangered Species Act Protection From Gray Wolves Across United States

Propose Exceptions in Special Cases Only: Subspecies, Northwest/Northeast Regions

PORTLAND, Ore.— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today recommended removing federal protections from gray wolves that remain on the endangered species list after wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains and upper Midwest had their protections stripped last year. The move could be devastating to wolf recovery. Fish and Wildlife conceded it will still consider protection for subspecies or breeding populations (including Mexican gray wolves, a recognized subspecies) and for populations in the Pacific Northwest and Northeast; its recommendation came in a five-year review of the Endangered Species Act listing for gray wolves in the lower 48.

“The agency’s saying protection for wolves should be taken away from them anywhere they don’t live right now, even if they lived in those places for thousands of years before we exterminated them and even if those places are still good habitat for them,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which has worked for decades to restore wolves. “If this approach had been taken with, say, bald eagles, we’d never have recovered eagles across much of the Midwest, Southeast or Northeast, where they didn’t exist when they were protected. This is a frightening example of the Fish and Wildlife Service abandoning the recovery mandate of the Endangered Species Act.”

According to the agency, ongoing status reviews covering the Mexican wolf, northwestern wolves and eastern wolves in New England will conclude by Sept. 30, 2012, at which point the agency signaled national-level protection for wolves would cease, likely including protections for wolves anywhere they are not currently found — such as the Northeast, Great Plains and central Rocky Mountains.

“Scientists have identified extensive wolf habitat in the Northeast, Southwest, Rocky Mountains and West Coast,” said Greenwald. “Protections should stay in place in all these wild areas, and recovery plans should be written allowing wolves to return safely.”

Wolves may retain protections in the Northwest, including portions of California and western Washington and Oregon, where wolves have recently been establishing packs. Two packs currently reside in western Washington, and wolves have been moving west from newly established packs in eastern Oregon — including a wolf known as OR-7, or Journey, that traveled 1,000 miles to become the first wolf in California in almost 90 years. The situation is less clear in the Northeast, where there are currently no breeding packs, although there arewolves a mere 100 miles north of the Canadian border.

“We hope wolves in the Southwest and Northwest will retain protection and gain the benefits of scientific recovery plans,” said Greenwald. “But stripping protections for wolves in the central Rocky Mountains of Utah and Colorado, and in verdant New England where overlarge deer populations are devouring tree seedlings and stopping forests from regrowing, hurts these ecosystems and is tragic for pioneering wolves.”

In the vacuum of federal leadership for wolf recovery, and in light of OR-7’s ongoing two-month-long journey into Northern California, a hopeful precursor of other wolves’ arrivals, the Center petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission on Monday to list wolves as endangered under the California Endangered Species Act and to develop a state wolf recovery plan.

“Wolves are a keystone species that have shaped North American landscapes for eons,” said Greenwald. “They restore natural balance and in the process benefit a host of species.”

Scientists have found that wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 forced elk to move more, and in so doing allowed for recovery of streamside vegetation, helping beavers, fish and songbirds. Wolves also benefit scavenging animals such as weasels, eagles, wolverines and bears; and they increased numbers of foxes and pronghorns in Yellowstone and nearby Grand Teton National Park by controlling coyotes, which wolves regard as competitors.

“If we want to keep any part of America wild, we need to keep our wolves,” said Greenwald.

Read more about the Center’s work to save wolves.