Federal delisting may come for wolves

May 6, 2013

There’s rumor of possible federal delisting of wolves. Lips are tight on details, but the potential is hopeful for producers.

Word has spread from a pair of major news outlets regarding a draft rule by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Reportedly, the draft rule proposes the federal delisting of the gray wolf in the continental U.S. Though this document is not available to the public and was obtained through as-yet unclear means, the possibility of federal delisting remains on the horizon.

The story of the potential delisting was broken by the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, April 25 and later circulated by the Associated Press. In the original story which cited the draft rule, the document was described as “obtained by The Times.” The wording used in the article, coupled with the fact the draft rule is not yet available to the public, suggests a situation of leaked information. The author of the original Times story declined to share a copy of the document with WLJ, citing an agreement made not to distribute it.

According to both the Times and AP reports, the draft rule proposes to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List in the continental 48 states. The move would turn over wolf management to the states rather than the federal government. Exceptions are supposedly in place for the small clutch—estimated by FWS at 75 individuals in 2012—of Mexican wolves residing in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma.

Wolf recovery

Currently, the majority of the lower-48 wolf population resides in one of two Distinct Population Segments (DPS): the Western Great Lakes DPS and the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS. According to the most recent FWS data, the wolf population within these areas is estimated at over 6,100 individuals.

FWS cited this successful population in response to WLJ’s request for information on the draft rule situation.

“As demonstrated by our recent release of scientific monitoring results for 2012, the populations of gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains and the Western Great Lakes continue to be robust, reflecting a recovery that is one of the world’s great conservation successes. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is evaluating the appropriate management status of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) outside of these recovered population areas, using the latest scientific and taxonomic information. The draft proposal is clearly a matter that is still under internal review and discussion, and therefore it is inappropriate for the Service to comment at this time. When our proposal is made public by publication in the Federal Register, we will provide an opportunity for public review and comment, and will address any substantive comments and information we receive before making a final determination.”

In an email exchange, the author of the Times article said the draft rule should be published in the Federal Register early to mid-May.

Wolves living within the two DPS areas have been delisted due to having successfully reached population goals. Again according to FWS information, recovery goals for the Western Great Lakes DPS—which covers Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin—were met in 2001 and the area was delisted in 2011. The Northern Rocky Mountain DPS— which includes Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the eastern thirds of both Washington and Oregon, and a small section of Utah—were reached in 2002. The area was delisted in 2012.

Wolves in the continental states existing outside the DPS recovery areas are very possible but also very difficult to track. In those states without a delisted DPS, and even in those states which are partially covered by a DPS, wolves are currently protected federally under ESA. In Alaska, however, where the population estimate ranges from 7,700- 11,200 individuals, wolves are not protected by ESA.

Producer perspectives

Though most wolves in the lower 48 states reside in one or other DPS, the fact wolves don’t care about imaginary lines on a map causes problems. The potential for federal delisting is welcomed by those in states split by delisted recovery areas like the Dakotas, Oregon and Washington.

In Washington, the eastern third of the state is covered by the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS where wolves are delisted, but in the other two-thirds of the state, they are federally protected.

Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, explained how the edge of the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS falls along the 97/17 highway that runs northsouth through the state. The reactions to wolves attacking cattle are very different for producers depending on which side of the road they fall on.

“In Washington state, there was nowhere a wolf could be shot. When the eastern third was delisted, state officials could come take out problem wolves. How the split status works for a producer now is if you live in the eastern third of the state, is they can shoot them. But the problem we have in the western twothirds, is no matter what the wolf does, no lethal control can be taken. You can have 100 calves killed on the west side of the highway and nothing will happen.”

He expressed frustration at the arbitrary nature of the line. “When you’re on the other side of that yellow paint, there’s no lethal take because they’re federally listed.”

The possibility of federal delisting would open up greater abilities for Washington producers to protect their livestock. It would also create a greater level of consistency regarding the regulations.

Field spoke at length regarding Washington’s emergency rule for the delisted portion of the state. He said under the state plan, producers can apply for caught-in-the-act permits which would allow for shooting wolves found posing an immediate threat to livestock.

“The department has already started the process for the permits,” he said, positing a permanent replacement to the emergency rule would be out later this year, possibly September or October.

If federal delisting becomes a reality, the caught-in-the-act permit system would likely serve as a model for the rest of the state.

Field noted, however, that this possibility would not open the floodgates to a reprisal of the 1930’s destruction of the wolf as opponents often fear.

“The people on the conservation side need to realize, if this happens, this isn’t going to be an extirpation of the wolf. This isn’t a wide open hunting season. It’s still a non-game species.”

Ultimately, Field stressed the need for both sides to realize their common ground when dealing with the wolves. He also pointed out that, in a situation of federal delisting, it would be in the interests of ranchers to maintain the wolf recovery within management goals to prevent relisting.

“Let’s face it, the wolves are here. We need to be sure we can manage this responsibly. And we need to make sure we have a user-friendly plan for producers and hunters and keep stakeholders whole.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor