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Wolves are targets in the Endangered Species Act “modernization”

Congress considers updating the law, a move some think will defang it

By Mark D. Kaufman

In 1965, if you shot and killed a wolf in Minnesota, the state rewarded you with $35.

This was the last bounty paid on a wolf’s head in the United States, because by then, grey wolves had already lost their centuries-long clash with man. They had been poached, poisoned and driven back into a small pocket of northern Minnesota. Yet today, wolves are back in seven states, and the Endangered Species Act – which protects wolves from being hunted – is the most important reason why.

But the landmark law that saved the grey wolf, Canis lupus, from being swept off the broad map of the lower 48 states is now under heavy pressure from members of the Republican-controlled Congress who want to “modernize” the act. To them, that means removing protections from wolves, among other changes. Even many conservationists think that the Endangered Species Act could use an update – just not any time soon. They don’t trust the nation’s top lawmakers to responsibly protect the country’s vulnerable wildlife.

“Modernizing it shouldn’t mean weakening it,” says Leah Gerber, a conservation scientist at Arizona State University. “Preserving biodiversity has become a political issue, and it’s being framed as a threat to economic development.”

Indeed, wolves do eat some cattle, angering farmers. Many states have responded by setting up programs to compensate them for their losses. But the problem is often exaggerated: Less than half of one percent of cattle losses are caused by wolf depredation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Still, after the November elections, Republicans are in control of lawmaking, and many lawmakers who represent wolf country want to do something about the wild canines and the law that protects them.

“Here’s the problem – the Endangered Species Act is not working today,” said Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, at the “Modernization of the Endangered Species Act” hearing on Feb. 15 of this year, where wolves were, unsurprisingly, a hot topic. The senator expressed disappointment with the law, citing that just 47 of 1,652 species – or three percent – have been successfully recovered from the endangered list. “As a doctor,” said Barrasso (an orthopedic surgeon), “if I admit 100 patients to the hospital and only three recover enough under my treatment to be discharged, I would deserve to lose my medical license.”

To natural resource experts, that argument is worn out and misleading.

“That’s a line that’s been used for over 20 years,” says Holly Doremus, an environmental law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The true measurement of the Endangered Species Act’s success, Doremus explains, is its proven ability to keep susceptible species in existence. While it’s true that most species are still on the list, this doesn’t mean the law has failed, she says. Rather, the fact that these species still exist proves that the law has worked.

Prior to the passage of the Endangered Species Act, many iconic critters were on their way to becoming myths — things to be read about by American schoolchildren in books rather than being spotted in the wild. In the 1970s, the American crocodile and grizzly bear joined a list of bats, seals, spiders and birds protected by the then-new law. Nearly all of these animals still exist today, although many live in small slices of their former range. But sometimes an endangered population experiences an astonishing rebound. In the 1960s, there were only 500 nesting pairs of the bald eagle left in the contiguous United States. But by 2007, the population of America’s national bird swelled to 10,000 nesting pairs. This “Endangered Species Act success story,” in the words of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, prompted the bald eagles’ removal from the endangered species list.

For other animals (like grey wolves and grizzly bears) that haven’t made a comeback, conservationists assert that the problem is cost: Pulling creatures back from near extinction isn’t cheap, and there isn’t enough money to go around.

“The vast majority of endangered species are underfunded,” says Gerber at Arizona State. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year, Gerber found that the vast majority of endangered species are getting just a fraction – around 20 percent – of the funding needed to recover their populations. “I wouldn’t expect [the Endangered Species Act] to be successful given the lack of funding to recover them,” she says.

Some eager to modernize the law think it may have been too successful, at least in the case of grey wolves. Jim Holte, the president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, lamented Wisconsin’s 800 wolves when testifying at the senate hearing in February. “As wolf populations continue to increase, interactions between farmers, their livestock, rural residents and wolves continue to escalate without a remedy in sight,” he said.

By remedy, Holte, who was unavailable for further comment, likely means reinstating the right to hunt or legally harvest the wolves.

He and other farming advocates ceaselessly debate wolf conservationists about whether or not the animals are endangered. This is because the Endangered Species Act does not accurately define what an endangered species is, stating that it’s a species “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.” This vague language leaves scientists, wildlife managers and farmers to debate the status of wolves and other listed species.

In 1973, the year President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act, the wolf population in the western United States was a stark zero. “There was no question that they needed protection in the 70s,” says John Vucetich, who studies wolves and predator-prey relationships at Michigan Technological University. Today, 650 wolves roam Michigan, and similar numbers exist in other states. “Some might say that isn’t enough,” says Vucitech. “Others would say it’s more than enough, and that we have more wolves than we know what to do with.”

Congressional Republicans suggested making it easier for animals, like the grey wolf, to be delisted, and instead let states manage these troubled species. Once wolf populations rebounded in Michigan and Wisconsin, for instance, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service handed these states the reins of wolf management. But soon after, federal courts ruled that the wolf populations were too vulnerable, transferring management back to the Fish and Wildlife Service and placing wolves back on the list. To combat these vacillating legal battles, Republicans proposed a law that prohibited federal courts from intruding upon Fish and Wildlife Service decisions. Such an action “is not typical,” says Doremus. “But it’s not unheard of.”

It is hardly secret that conservationists oppose the Republican plans to modify the law. But conservationists agree that the Endangered Species Act can be improved, just in different ways.

Clarifying the question of what an endangered species is “would be a good thing to talk to one another about,” says Berkeley’s Doremus. And although the Endangered Species Act judges how well a species is doing today, the law says little about its future prospects. Species that are doing well today may be imperiled when future environmental conditions are considered, Doremus says.

“Polar bears are the classic example,” she says. They have a relatively robust population today, of between 22,000 to 31,000. “But the big question is, are we taking actions now that will put them on an inevitable path to extinction? And in my mind, we are,” says Doremus, citing dwindling sea ice, which is essential to the lives of polar bears.

But even if Doremus and other conservationists think the Endangered Species Act could use an update, they generally agree that the risks aren’t worth opening up the law for revision. “Right now, I would tell Congress to stay away from conservation legislation,” she says, because she doesn’t think it’s possible to have a constructive deliberation about improving the law.

“The tricky thing is, once we open up the law for modification, we risk getting rid of it entirely,” Gerber says.

Vucitech, of Michigan Tech, agrees. “For Democrats, there is a profound aversion to revising the Endangered Species Act, because Republicans would eviscerate it. There would be a huge step backwards.”

Although the Republican-dominated Congress has the power to modify the law now, with the likely support of President Donald Trump, Doremus thinks that the Endangered Species Act may be temporarily safe – at least for the next year or so, because they’ll spend their political capital on healthcare before taking up other controversial issues. “I would be surprised if there was a wholesale attack on the Endangered Species Act right now.”

If the law is reevaluated by Congress, conservationists are pitting their hopes on the court system to defend a 44-year-old federal law against those who see the return of the wolf as a threat, not a triumph. Those seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints are sure to outlast the current political turmoil, Vucitech says, because of something much more primal in the human psyche. We alternately revere and fear the wolf, this legendary character of the American wilderness, because of its likeness to – of all species – us.

“Something about wolves reminds us of ourselves,” says Vucitech. Wolves can live nearly anywhere, like us. They live in family groups like us, and eat many of the same things we do. “We look at wolves and we’re not sure to hate what we see, or like what we see,” he says.