Strange Science and Nasty Politics Threaten Gray Wolves

Wild Things
Slate’s animal blog.
Feb. 21 2014 1:48 PM

Wolves May Be Losing a Nasty Political Battle

gray_wolf1
There's still time to tell the Fish and Wildlife Service what you think about the latest proposal to remove protection for the gray wolf.

Courtesy of USFWS Pacific Region/Flickr

The Endangered Species Act sounds simple on paper. Its goal is to preserve biological diversity, protect critical habitat, and recover threatened species across the country. But nothing is simple when it comes to the environment. Lobbyists have labeled the ESA both a success and a failure, and a Republican congressman is the latest to try to drastically curtail its protections. The ESA has been argued from all sides, and never more so than when discussions turn to the American gray wolf.

The gray wolf is one of the most hotly contested symbols in the conservation debate today. In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service presented a proposal to nudge gray wolves from under its protective umbrella, effectively “delisting” them across the lower 48 states. (Gray wolves have already been delisted in seven states of the Northern Rockies and Western Great Lakes.) The proposal would turn wolf management over to individual states.

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The proposal caused a great deal of consternation among scientists and wolf supporters. The Endangered Species Act provides an “emergency room way-station for declining species to regain their footing and the sufficiently recover,” said Don Barry, a former chief counsel for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, now at Defenders of Wildlife. Some of the ESA’s biggest success stories are the bald eagle, brown pelican, and American alligator. But wolves are a long way from the healthy numbers these species have reached: An August 2013 population count found just 5,443 wolves across the entire country (excluding Alaska, where wolves are not covered by the ESA). The Fish and Wildlife Service is tired of the issue, Barry told me, and “they are sort of getting up in the middle of the movie.”

This month, following a brief hiatus, arguments have reignited with the release of an independent review paper from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California-Santa Barbara. It finds that the delisting proposal is not, in fact, based on the “best available science.”

The review vindicates critics who say the Fish and Wildlife Service is trying to de-list the wolves prematurely, finding “problematic conclusions” in the proposal that treat contentious genetic and ecological theories as fact.

The review got at least one big result: the Fish and Wildlife Service responded by reopening its proposal to public comment. You now have until March 27 to weigh in on wolves' future. (Last year the proposal attracted more than 1 million comments, ranging from passionate personal pleas to analytical legal responses; most of these comments were amassed by conservation groups and delivered in December.)* The Fish and Wildlife Service has indicated it will make a final determination on the proposal by the end of the year.

What are the scientific arguments actually about, though? Much of the controversy can be traced to the idea of “historic range,” which, broadly stated, refers to the area an animal occupied before humans came along and set about killing it. John Vucetich, a population biologist at Michigan Tech, has argued that wolves currently occupy less than 15 percent of their historic range; along with many other biologists, he has also argued that the Endangered Species Act dictates wolves be restored to a “significant portion” of that original range before they’re ripe for delisting.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has other ideas, though. When I questioned the agency, Gary Frazer, who heads up the Endangered Species Program, called the desire to restore wolves everywhere they used to live “a completely legitimate conservation objective more broadly stated.” But he denied it’s the objective of the Endangered Species Act. He said the ESA’s real objective is “to bring species to the point where they are no longer at risk of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range.” Range, in his explanation, is “the range at the time at which we’re making a determination of whether a species is threatened or endangered.” In other words, range is where an animal lives at the particular moment the Fish and Wildlife Service decides to list it, not where it used to live before it was widely persecuted.

That’s an odd argument: If a squirrel species is reduced to living in a single park, does that mean the Fish and Wildlife Service is obligated by the Endangered Species Act only to maintain the squirrel there and nowhere else?

The rationale for delisting also rests on a taxonomical revision—that is, it reconceives what is meant when we say “American gray wolf.” Using a scientific paper co-authored by four of its own scientists and published in its own journal without peer-review, the Fish and Wildlife Service claims that, historically, the United States was home to another wolf species (Canis lycaon), which would mean that the “historic range” of our modern wolves (Canis lupus) didn’t actually include most of the eastern half of the country. That’s a complex point, but perhaps the most important thing to take away is the fact that the Fish and Wildlife Service previously rejected this paper in 2011 as representing “neither a scientific consensus nor the majority opinion of researchers on the taxonomy of wolves.” In other words, most experts didn’t agree with it. And they still don’t, according to the new independent review released this month, which focuses specifically on taxonomy.

“There’s no precedent,” Robert Wayne told me. Wayne is a canid geneticist at UCLA who sat on the independent review panel with six other scientists. “I can’t think of another endangered species which has been delisted because of a taxonomic revision. In this case the taxonomic revision is questionable,” he said. “It seems like a convenient way for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the gray wolf in 22 eastern states.”

But if the delisting proposal is not based on the “best available science,” what is it really about? “This was politics masquerading as science,” the New York Times declared last August in an editorial. Nor is it alone in its suspicions. The issue of wolves has always been politically charged, with agricultural and hunting interests pitted against conservationists and biologists.

“I think probably over the decades at least a few of us were lulled into this sense of acceptance, that everything was getting better and that people now understood the importance of predators like wolves,” Don Barry said. But the debate over the delisting proposals has been a reminder of the residual anger towards wolves in the rural West, where influential ranchers have long fought wolves for depredating livestock. “Merge that in with the whole Tea Party fervor against government, and what you end up with in the state legislatures is this race to the bottom to see who can be more anti-wolf. The biology of the thing gets thrown right out the window.”

John Vucetich offered two potential outcomes from here. Either the Fish and Wildlife Service rescinds its proposal in a few months time, which would mean “one or two years of just lying low,” or it pushes forward with proposed plans for delisting, turning its attention to the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf. If that turns out to be the case, the future of the American gray wolf becomes very gray indeed.

Correction, Feb. 25, 2014: This post originally stated that a proposal by the Fish and Wildlife Service received more than 30,000 public comments last year. In the middle of December it received an influx, bringing that number up to more than 1 million. 

Lance Richardson is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter, or visit his website.

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