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America’s Hundred-Year War on Grey Wolves

In the early and mid-1900s, grey wolves were systematically hunted to near-extinction. Now, after 45 years of federal protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has removed grey wolves from the list of safeguarded species in the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This highly disputed removal shifts the species’ management, responsibility, and protection to state and tribal governments. 

After a national extermination campaign in the early 1900s with the goal of protecting people and livestock decimated the grey wolf population in the continental United States, there were only a handful of them left in the country, mainly scattered along the Canadian border. Since then, increases in population have stemmed from grey wolf reintroduction movements in the 1990s, as well as natural migrations into the Pacific Northwest and California from southern Canada and expansions of Minnesota’s remaining population. 

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims the grey wolf population is “stable and healthy throughout its current range,” and that their habitation of the western Great Lakes region, Rocky Mountains, and Pacific Northwest is adequate for the species’ long-term survival. They disagree with some activist groups and scientific research teams who assert that recovery in every area the wolves once inhabited is necessary. As of November, there are roughly 6,000 wolves in the lower 48 states.

The removal has been met with indignation from advocacy and conservation groups, including Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity, who have already brought legal challenges against it. The ESA states that a species should receive federal protections if it is threatened or endangered in “all or a significant portion of its range.” However, although studies prove that they could thrive in 17 states, including portions of New England and the Southwest, grey wolves currently populate less than 20 percent of their historic range. Mike Phillips, a Montana state senator and fierce supporter of wolf reintroduction, questions the Fish and Wildlife Service’s logic: “How can 80 percent of wolf habitat with the species extirpated be insignificant?” 

In their public statement, the Fish and Wildlife Service maintained that “state and tribal wildlife agencies have a long track record of successfully managing wildlife in their states, including deer, elk, wild turkeys, river otters, and many other game and nongame species that had been extirpated and restored to healthy populations.” However, Adrian Treves, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, challenges that claim. In the region of his work, the western Great Lakes area, grey wolf numbers have historically diminished when national controls were lifted. When hunting season rolled around, game hunters and poachers were emboldened by the lack of federal protections.

Partial blame for recent controversy has been placed on the August 2019 rewriting of the ESA, its most significant modification since 1973. The adjustments included a decrease in protections for threatened species (as opposed to those designated as endangered), an amendment that allowed the economic toll of federal safeguards to be taken into account when adding or removing species from the list, and a reworked definition of the “foreseeable future” which conservationists say allows decision makers to ignore threats from climate change by arguing that their effects may not be felt for decades. According to Brett Hartl, government-affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, “These changes tip the scales way in favour of industry. They threaten to undermine the last 40 years of progress.”

On election day, a vote on the reintroduction of grey wolves to Colorado narrowly passed, requiring wildlife officials to release wolves into the state by the end of 2023. This move was the first time a state has voted to reintroduce an animal to the ecosystem in U.S. history. “Reintroducing wolves will restore Colorado’s natural balance,” says Jonathan Proctor, a conservationist with the group Defenders of Wildlife.

Supporters of the reintroduction describe grey wolves’ ecosystem roles as a keystone species: they help maintain a healthy population of deer and elk, support higher populations of other small carnivores by competing with coyotes, and provide food for many endangered scavengers, like wolverines, eagles, and bears. For example, after the wolves were completely eradicated from Yellowstone National Park and reintroduced decades later, their presence had noticeable positive effects on the health of the park’s ecosystem and helped increase biodiversity indices.

On the other hand, dissenters point out that the majority of rural Colorado residents are against the measure, while supportive urban voters will likely never live alongside the animals. Hunting and agriculture-focused groups cite grey wolves’ tendency to kill livestock, though they are only responsible for 0.2% of cattle deaths, as well as their patterns of feeding on other valuable game species like elk. In an interview with National Geographic, Brenda Peterson, author of Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves, broke down the debate: “On either side, you have people who have a sense of righteousness about their cause. One side, the hunters and ranchers, has been dominant since we began as a country. Now, all of a sudden, you have voices coming from the public, who are often urban and have an environmental passion.”

In an anecdote during her interview, Peterson made it clear that the removal represents a concerning shift for all wildlife, not just wolves. “I was interviewing a woman last week from Defenders of Wildlife, and she was distraught. She said that in Wyoming, which has just lifted protections for wolves, a man called her to brag that he had gotten on his snowmobile, chased a wild wolf for 30 miles, until the wolf collapsed from exhaustion, and then he shot [it].” The removal of grey wolves from the endangered species list is testament to a worrying anti-conservation climate in America.

Grey wolves will officially lose all federal protections on January 4, 2021.



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Challenges Demonstrate Need for an Improved Framework for Conserving Intraspecific 

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