Dear EarthTalk: What was the nature of the agreement just forged between green groups and the U.S. government for wolf protection in the Northern Rockies?
— Peggy Marshall, Boise, ID
This past March, a coalition of 10 conservation groups finally reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Interior regarding gray wolf recovery and management in the Northern Rockies. The courtroom battle had raged since the Bush administration had announced in January 2009 its decision to take gray wolves—66 of which were reintroduced to the region in 1995 after their forebears were wiped out by hunters and ranchers a century earlier—off of the Endangered Species List.
Today upwards of 1,600 gray wolves roam the six-state region, exceeding wildlife biologists’ expectations by a factor of five. The groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife, sued the Interior Department, contended that taking away federal protections and allowing hunting of the wolves would be no way to encourage their rebound. The effort succeeded and kept the delisting from becoming a reality.
Ranchers have been especially vocal in opposing protection for the wolves, which they say are to blame for increased livestock predation as well as the decline in the region’s elk herds in recent years.
The conservationists’ primary concern had been that certain states where the wolves now range (thanks to reintroduction efforts) did not have large enough wolf populations or sufficient statewide protections to ensure their rebound would continue. Under the new agreement, gray wolves will be delisted in those states that have established suitable protection plans (Idaho and Montana)—so limited hunting will be allowed there—while federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections will remain in place in the other states (Washington, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming) where gray wolf populations are still in jeopardy.
As part of the new deal, the Department of the Interior will conduct rigorous scientific monitoring of wolf populations across the region and solicit an independent scientific review by an expert advisory board after three years to reassess the situation.
Washington, Oregon and Utah only have small populations of gray wolves. Wyoming, however, where the animals are thriving, is a different story. Wildlife biologists were concerned about delisting the animals there as state officials had sought a “predator zone”—where wolves could be shot on sight—covering almost 90 percent of the state. As a result of this concern, gray wolves will remain listed under the ESA in Wyoming, although U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service officials are working with state wildlife biologists to develop a more responsible plan that would allow delisting there as well at some future date.
“The settlement offers a workable solution to the increasingly polarized debate over wolves,” reported the conservation groups in a joint memo, adding that they hope the agreement marks the “beginning of a new era of wolf conservation.” Other groups signing onto the agreement included Cascadia Wildlands, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Oregon Wild and Wildlands Network.