Gray wolves los­ing fed­eral pro­tec­tion

Re­moval from en­dan­gered list seen as threat to an­i­mal’s re­vival

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Kur­tis Alexan­der

The gray wolf, cel­e­brated as one of the great­est con­ser­va­tion come­backs in U.S. his­tory, will lose en­dan­gered species pro­tec­tions, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion an­nounced Thurs­day.

The widely ex­pected an­nounce­ment, made by In­te­rior Sec­re­tary David Bern­hardt, at­tests to the ris­ing num­bers of the sto­ried preda­tor, but it’s also set­ting off wide­spread con­cern that the an­i­mal is not ready for the change and that wolf pop­u­la­tions could per­ish in parts of the West, in­clud­ing

States will now be al­lowed to re­clas­sify gray wolves as game or per­mit kills to pro­tect live­stock.

Cal­i­for­nia.

Nearly wiped out by hunters and trap­pers in the lower 48 states, wolves made sig­nif­i­cant in­roads af­ter fed­eral safe­guards were en­acted in the 1970s. The large, steelyeyed ca­nines now thrive in parts of

the north­ern Rock­ies and Great Lakes re­gion, num­ber­ing over 6,000 across the con­tigu­ous United States. In much of their ter­ri­tory, how­ever, packs re­main thin, in­clud­ing Cal­i­for­nia, where just 14 wolves are known to roam to­day.

The move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice to lift fed­eral pro­tec­tions, al­low­ing states to re­clas­sify the an­i­mal as game or per­mit kills to pro­tect live­stock, could blunt emerg­ing wolf pop­u­la­tions and pre­vent the an­i­mal from ex­pand­ing its range, un­do­ing a half cen­tury of progress, sci­en­tists and con­ser­va­tion groups warn.

“This will be the end of the re­cov­ery,” said Amaroq Weiss, a bi­ol­o­gist with the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity who works on wolf con­ser­va­tion on the West Coast.

The de­ci­sion is the lat­est in a long line of bids by the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion to weaken en­vi­ron­men­tal laws in def­er­ence to com­mer­cial in­ter­ests.

This roll­back, though, is un­usu­ally vis­ceral as the tar­get is an en­dur­ing em­blem of the Amer­i­can wilder­ness. The gray wolf, a highly so­cial and some­times fierce preda­tor, looms large in the con­ti­nent’s his­tory and folk­lore and, in 1974, was one of the first species pro­tected un­der the En­dan­gered Species Act. It ranks along­side bald ea­gles, bi­son and bighorn sheep in cap­tur­ing peo­ple’s fas­ci­na­tion.

The wolf’s rep­u­ta­tion is not uni­ver­sally revered, how­ever, and ranch­ers and other ru­ral res­i­dents who are con­cerned about the car­ni­vore’s abil­ity to poach cat­tle and sheep are the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of the dereg­u­la­tion.

The Cal­i­for­nia Farm Bu­reau Fed­er­a­tion and the Cal­i­for­nia Cat­tle­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion have been par­tic­u­larly out­spo­ken about prob­lems with wolves and the need to drop pro­tec­tions. Their anx­i­ety echoes con­cerns that have flared in past ef­forts to sup­port top preda­tors on the Amer­i­can land­scape, like griz­zly bears.

“This year, in par­tic­u­lar, there have been an as­ton­ish­ing num­ber of wolf degra­da­tions on live­stock,” said Kirk Wil­bur, spokesman for the Cal­i­for­nia Cat­tle­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion. “I can think of five in­stances in the past month, month and half (in Cal­i­for­nia). That’s a sig­nif­i­cant bur­den for ranch­ers.”

Fed­eral of­fi­cials say they made the de­ci­sion to delist the wolf from the En­dan­gered Species Act be­cause legally, its num­bers didn’t war­rant the spe­cial treat­ment any longer.

“Af­ter more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has ex­ceeded all con­ser­va­tion goals for re­cov­ery,” Bern­hardt said in a pre­pared state­ment. “To­day’s an­nounce­ment sim­ply re­flects the de­ter­mi­na­tion that this species is nei­ther a threat­ened nor en­dan­gered species based on the spe­cific fac­tors Congress has laid out in the law.”

Un­der the reg­u­la­tory change, the gray wolf loses all pro­tected sta­tus in the 48 con­tigu­ous states with the ex­cep­tion of a sub­species of gray wolf known as the Mex­i­can wolf in the South­west. It re­mains des­ig­nated as en­dan­gered.

En­dan­gered and threat­ened clas­si­fi­ca­tions for gray wolves have al­ready been re­moved in some parts of the coun­try where the an­i­mal is most con­cen­trated, in­clud­ing Mon­tana and Idaho.

The re­sult of Thurs­day’s an­nounce­ment is that now each state de­cides how to man­age wolf pop­u­la­tions, in­clud­ing whether to al­low hunt­ing and kills for live­stock pro­tec­tion, and at what num­bers.

The change is sched­uled to be recorded Tues­day on the Fed­eral Reg­is­ter, where new govern­ment rules are posted, and will take ef­fect af­ter 60 days.

In Cal­i­for­nia, state law will con­tinue to safe­guard the gray wolf, but wildlife ex­perts say this ac­com­plishes only so much. Cal­i­for­nia’s wolves, like wolves else­where, mi­grate from other states, and if there are fewer in other states, Cal­i­for­nia’s pop­u­la­tion also lan­guishes.

“It’s a fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ple of na­ture,” Weiss said. “The wolves need to be able to dis­perse safely to re­gions where there’s suit­able habi­tat and form new packs.”

The first wolf to ap­pear in Cal­i­for­nia since they were erad­i­cated in the state in the 1920s came from Ore­gon. It was spot­ted in 2011.

The wolf, known as OR7 be­cause of the code used to track it, was re­ported miss­ing this year and is now pre­sumed dead. But one of its pups ca­vorted with other Ore­gon wolves to give rise to the Lassen Pack in Lassen and Plumas coun­ties. It’s the lone group liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia to­day.

State pro­tec­tions for gray wolves in Ore­gon, where the east­ern third of the state has al­ready been stripped from the fed­eral En­dan­gered Species Act, are not as strin­gent as in Cal­i­for­nia. When state law re­places fed­eral law for the rest of Ore­gon, con­ser­va­tion­ists worry that Cal­i­for­nia will see its pipe­line for new wolves dry up.“The only real pro­tec­tion that the wolves had in Ore­gon was the En­dan­gered Species Act,” said Sristi Ka­mal, se­nior North­west rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the or­ga­ni­za­tion De­fend­ers of Wildlife. “It was the only tool we had to keep wolves from be­ing killed.”

Con­ser­va­tion groups, in­clud­ing De­fend­ers of Wildlife and the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity, are vow­ing to mount a le­gal chal­lenge to the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ac­tion. Pre­vi­ous ef­forts to re­move the an­i­mal from the en­dan­gered species list have been stymied by the courts. The ear­lier law­suits ar­gued that the wolves’ re­cov­ery was not far enough along to jus­tify delist­ing.

“We def­i­nitely will con­tinue to fight,” Ka­mal said. “This def­i­nitely will im­pact how the species re­cov­ers and if it will re­cover at all.”

“Af­ter more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has ex­ceeded all con­ser­va­tion goals for re­cov­ery.”

David Bern­hardt, in­te­rior sec­re­tary

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice 2011

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice 2004

The gray wolf pop­u­la­tion has grown sig­nif­i­cantly un­der en­dan­gered species safe­guards.

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