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Plan to remove gray wolves from Endangered Species Act sparks battle

In this Feb. 1, 2017, photo released by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Snake River
A proposal to strip gray wolves of federal protections could limit their expansion across the U.S. West and Great Lakes.
(Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife via AP)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and environmentalists are at war over the agency’s latest plan to strip gray wolves of their federal protections and turn management of the often-reviled predators over to states and tribes.

“If the agency’s proposal gets finalized, we will see them in court,” Michael Robinson, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity said on Wednesday. “Delisting is simply out of the question.”

Surprisingly, however, in the latest chapter of a long-running battle to keep an estimated 6,000 gray wolves safe from trophy hunters and trappers, the center and the Humane Society of the United States are suggesting a compromise.

“We are proposing an alternate path forward — downlisting the gray wolf from federally endangered to threatened status,” said Brett Hartl, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. That action, he said, “would maintain federal protections the animal needs to survive in certain areas, while allowing states to share management oversight.”

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His organization doesn’t oppose state management of wolves, but it does oppose hunting wolves for sport, he said. “Free-for-all hunting of wolves is not management, it’s slaughter.”

Similarly, Nick Arrivo, an attorney with the Humane Society of the United States, said, “We don’t oppose the idea of state management. The problem is that certain states like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan have shown that they are not inclined to maintain healthy populations of gray wolves.”

Federal wildlife authorities removed protections from gray wolves in the Great Lakes region in 2011, allowing thousands of gray wolves in those three states to be hunted or trapped. The protections were restored by federal court decisions in 2014.

The prospect of removing wolf protections aroused rage yet again earlier this month when the Fish and Wildlife Service touted the species’ recovery as “one of the greatest comebacks for an animal in U.S. conservation history,” a characterization that some conservation groups called misguided and premature.

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David Bernhardt, acting secretary of the Department of Interior, said the plan to delist the species “puts us one step closer to transitioning the extraordinary effort that we have invested in gray wolf recovery to other species who actually need the protections of the Endangered Species Act, leaving the states to carry on the legacy of wolf conservation.”

However, the Humane Society, in a statement, warned that the plan catered “to a narrow group of special interests: the trophy hunters and trappers who want to kill wolves for bragging rights, social media opportunities and to increase deer and elk populations.”

It pointed out, for instance, that in November, “Americans were heartbroken” by the killing of the famous Yellowstone black wolf, Spitfire, by a trophy hunter in Montana.

It also argued that gray wolves are worth millions of dollars to the economies of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, studies show, because of the visitors they attract to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountains.

Beyond that, animal protectionists say, gray wolves slain for their fur or bragging rights cause suffering and social disruption among these highly organized and rare creatures.

At stake is a federal recovery program designed to bring gray wolves back to the top of the food chain in much of the nation’s public lands. With wolf packs now loping through a patchwork of forests from Michigan to Lassen County, Calif., significant repercussions are being recorded throughout the region’s wildlife hierarchy.

Before they were vanquished by government-backed poison-and-trapping campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries, wolves thrived in nearly every region of North America.

Once numbering in the millions, only 6,000 wolves are left in the Lower 48 and as many as 12,000 in Alaska, where they are legally hunted as big game.

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Their absence disrupted the natural predator-and-prey relationships throughout the Rocky Mountain region and resulted in a population explosion of deer and elk.

The species is only beginning to recover in other areas, such as Oregon, Washington and California, where a handful roam in and out of the Lassen County area. In California, the gray wolf is listed as a state endangered species.

In any case, gray wolves occupy a small fraction of their historic range. Scientists say a comprehensive recovery plan encouraging their return to suitable habitats is vital to restoring the natural rhythms of life among countless other animal and plant species that evolved with them.

“Wolves are vital to their ecosystems, but thousands of square miles of still-wild habitat haven’t felt a wolf’s paw for a century,” Robinson said. “True wolf recovery will lead to healthier deer herds, leftover carrion for bears, eagles and badgers, and natural control of coyotes with resulting benefits for foxes and other small mammals.”

Louis.Sahagun@latimes.com

@LouisSahagun


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