The goal of the Endangered Species Act is to restore healthy, self-sustaining populations of disappearing plants and animals, not to keep them teetering on the brink of extinction. Yet the actions of three states and a handful of congressmen seem likely to undermine the spectacular return of the gray wolves of the Northern Rockies and possibly harm attempts to restore other wolf populations across the country. Even worse, they would set an appalling precedent for undermining the species act.
When the Northern Rockies population of wolves reached a robust 1,700 two years ago — from 66 at the time they were declared endangered — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took them off the list. The problem is that the three states where most of the population is located — Montana, Idaho and Wyoming — had little interest in protecting the wolves. Wyoming in particular produced an unacceptable plan that allowed them to be hunted with virtually no restrictions.
After a judge ordered the wolves relisted, the government proposed delisting them in Montana and Idaho but not in Wyoming. A judge struck that down, saying that the wolves represented a single population that happened to sprawl cross manmade boundaries.
Now various Western lawmakers have decided they can solve politically what should be accomplished through science. Five bills have been introduced that would exclude the wolves from the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Two would affect all wolves, including the handful of struggling Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico. Others would strip protections from only the Northern Rockies wolves or those in Montana and Idaho.
Talks between Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the governors of the states haven’t resolved the situation. Wyoming would treat wolves as predators, meaning they could be shot on sight. Idaho wants to maintain only 15 breeding pairs. There must be allowances for limited, managed hunting of wolves, especially those that attack livestock. But when the government spent millions of dollars to restore wolves, it wasn’t so hunters could undo that investment.
Though the individual bills are unlikely to pass by the end of the year, language from one or more could be inserted into must-pass omnibus bills. That would be disastrous. Despite the many disagreements about the Endangered Species Act since it was passed in 1973, Congress has never directly taken over the job of determining which endangered animals should live or die. To do so now would be to set a precedent for allowing narrow political interests to override compelling national environmental interests. And what species would be next? Dozens of lawmakers would love to jump onto such a bandwagon.