Wolves will be officially removed from protections granted under the endangered species act as of January 4th, 2021. This means that their species in the United States (excluding the Mexican wolf) will be considered to have recovered from endangered status. No, you won’t be able to go out and hunt them right away, but let’s talk about the history of them becoming endangered, why they are considered to have recovered, and what it means now that they’re delisted.
Wolves In The United States
Perhaps no other mammal has engendered as much controversy as the wolf. Loved and hated by many, they were extirpated throughout much of the country by hunting, habitat loss, and loss of food. Humans have a habit of eliminating other predator species that we perceive as a threat or competition for food. As livestock farming in the United States increased, the threat of wolves to these operations increased. After the out of control market hunting of the 1800s, many of the species that wolves relied on for food also severely declined in population throughout much of the country. As deer, elk, and bison populations approached the brink of extirpation in many states, wolves lost many of their food sources. Combine this with the expansion of people into many places which were once wild and good wolf habitat and the writing was on the wall. The remaining wolves were hunted and killed until wolves were very much endangered.
in 1973 wolves became listed under the new Endangered Species Act passed by congress. While a species that is listed as threatened is closely monitored and hunts are typically cancelled, the ESA has much stronger protections. By federal law, an endangered species may only be killed for self-defense if someone’s life is in jeopardy. Lands that contain endangered species can be regulated and subject to government oversight and controls. Management of an endangered species shifts from state wildlife agencies to the federal government.
Over the next five decades after wolves were listed, the controls have worked and populations have increased drastically across much of the country. In several areas wolves were specifically reintroduced by biologists. In 2003, the US fish and wildlife service changed the status of wolves from endangered to threatened. This move was quickly met with dozens of lawsuits and injunctions which kept the issue in legal limbo for the last 17 years. Some states succeeded in getting wolves delisted and there were even some wolf hunts that occurred over this time period. However, they still remained protected throughout most of the country.
Today, the population of gray wolves in the lower 48 states is over 6,000 wolves. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), this greatly exceeds the stated recovery goals for the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolves and the Western Great Lakes Wolves.
What The New ‘Final Rule’ Means
Under the new rule just issued by the Department of the Interior, gray wolves will no longer receive federal protections under the endangered species act. What this does, is return management of the wolves to individual states rather than the federal government. This will allow states and local biologists to make decisions about how to best manage their wold populations. Some states may reinstate wolf hunts. Many will provide depredation permits for farmers and ranchers to kill problem wolves. While we won’t have a wolf hunt in Michigan immediately, this does pave the way for future hunter management of the population here.
It is extremely important to protect species that are on the verge of being extirpated. However, these decisions must be made based on science and biology. Too often, people who live in large cities become emotionally attached to the anthropomorphized image of an animal that they have created in their minds. This is detrimental to the goals of the North American model of conservation. The model which is the most successful managed conservation program ever in the history of the world, relies on biologists to make decisions about wildlife. When a species needs to be managed, hunters do the management (killing off the excess animals) and pay money via the Pittman Roberts act and license sales to do so. This money provides much needed financial support for the furtherance of our conservation goals.
Once a species has recovered, which the wolf most certainly has, it is crucial that control be returned to individual states and wildlife managers. While the timing of the new final rule on wolves certainly feels political just days before the election, let’s not let that get in the way of celebrating a good decision which was a long time coming.