Scientific peer review of wolf delisting on hold

Aug 16, 2013

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced last week that it will put on hold the scientific peer review of its proposal to remove protections for gray wolves across the country.

In June, to the relief of producers across the Midwest, USFWS called for removing gray wolves across the Lower 48 States from the endangered species list, but the process, that is supposed to include the scientific peer review, has been full of environmental battles, with this latest one having the potential to add significant delays.

Before the gray wolf can be delisted, the science-based review and evaluation is required by the Endangered Species Act. The agency hired a private contractor to select and oversee the peer review panel, according to Gavin Shire with USFWS.

Earlier this month, three scientists were dropped from the peer review, according to environmentalists because of a letter they had signed that called into question the science behind the proposal to delist the gray wolf. The change caused an uproar among some groups, with them claiming that USFWS was trying to “stack the deck” in favor of the delisting.

Sixteen total scientists had signed the letter sent to Sally Jewell, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The letter accuses USFWS of misrepresenting their conclusions to justify the delisting of wolves from the federal endangered species list.

“As scientists with expertise in carnivore taxonomy and conservation biology, we are writing to express serious concerns with a recent draft rule leaked to the press that proposes to remove Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 States, excluding the range of the Mexican gray wolf. Collectively, we represent many of the scientists responsible for the research referenced in the draft rule,” the letter states.

“Based on a careful review of the rule, we do not believe that the rule reflects the conclusions of our work or the best available science concerning the recovery of wolves, or is in accordance with the fundamental purpose of the Endangered Species Act to conserve endangered species and the ecosystems upon which they depend,” it continues.

According to the scientists’ letter, the leaked proposal would: 1) “remove the gray wolf from the List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife,” 2) “maintain endangered status for the Mexican wolf by listing it as a subspecies (Canis lupus baileyi),” 3) “recognize a new species of wolf known as Canis lycaon [that] occurs in southeastern Canada and historically occurred in the northeastern United States and portions of the upper Midwest (eastern and western Great Lakes regions),” and 4) deny protection to wolves in the Pacific Northwest because they do not qualify as a distinct population segment for lack of discreteness from wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains.

“Given the importance of wolves and the fact that they have only just begun to recover in some regions and not at all in others, we hope you will reconsider the Service’s proposal to remove protections across most of the United States,” the scientists’ letter says.

Despite the bump and misleading headlines (Los Angeles Times headline reads, “Plan to remove wolves from endangered species list on hold”), Gavin told Western Livestock Journal (WLJ) that the comment period will continue through Sept. 11 as planned, and USFWS will continue to work towards a resolution on the review process.

“We are certainly not shelving the process,” Gavin said. But that agency wants to make sure the review is science based, “objective and without bias.”

But environmentalistsgroups have a different take.

“We’re glad to see the Fish and Wildlife Service admit this mistake and hope this means there will be a true independent review of this deeply flawed proposal to remove protections for gray wolves,” said Brett Hartl, endangered species policy director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unfortunately, this is but one example of how the Fish and Wildlife Service has been twisting the scientific process to get the desired political result of no more protections for wolves.”

The controversy over the scientists has, if nothing else, been a reminder for producers to send in their comments before the September deadline, said Jack Field, executive vice president of the Washington Cattlemen’s Association.

“I think it is easy to say, we’ve successfully recovered the wolf,” Field told WLJ. “This federal delisting is imperative.”

To date, USFWS has received over 37,000 comments on the delisting, with the majority of them in favor of leaving them on the endangered species list.

To comment, visit http:// Field points out that your comments don’t have to be lengthy, they can be as simple as, “I support delisting and state management of the gray wolves.”

Meanwhile, the cattle vs. wolf conflicts continue to rise, and in the state of Washington, most ranchers feel they have limited recourse and support.

On July 22, a calf was killed at Roy Graeber’s ranch near Laurier. And another calf in the same area was also killed at the Diamond M Ranch on July 2.

“When the department removed seven of the Wedge pack wolves last year, we were told that from here on out there would be a zerotolerance policy for wolves eating cattle in the Wedge area,” said Stevens County Cattlemen’s Association President Scott Nielsen. “However, we knew that they didn’t remove the whole pack, so the remaining wolves are now causing problems this season. We want the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to finish the job and remove the rest of the pack, as they are exhibiting the same pattern of killing cattle that we saw last year.”

The Wedge pack was estimated by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department (WDFW) to range from eight to 11 wolves during 2013. Seven of those wolves were removed by the department after WDFW confirmed the pack killed 10 calves and injured eight more at the Diamond M Ranch. Actual losses by the ranch were estimated to be as high as 40 calves, with many calves missing, according to ranch records.

Graeber said he has been unimpressed with the department’s efforts to identify or manage the problem wolves.

“Right after the kill, we had a range rider up here for a couple days and he said he spotlighted two wolves within the three nights while he was here. But the department is saying there is not enough wolf activity in the area to start live trapping or any other measures,” said Graeber. “In the meantime, I am out chasing after my cows all day trying to get them back where they are supposed to be.”

For Graeber, the loss of one calf is a significant blow. If the casualties rise to the 18 head that were killed or injured at the Diamond M Ranch last year, Graeber said the effects would be serious.

“If I lose a few more than the Diamond M did last year, that would amount to 25 percent of my calf crop. Twenty-five percent is what I live on; it’s what I buy groceries with,” he said.

Along with agreeing to have a WDFW range rider deployed directly after the kill, the Graeber ranch has also implemented other nonlethal methods in the past but with limited success. Due to wolf pressure last winter, electric fladry, or electric fencing with plastic ribbons tied to it, was used around a calving pen. However, the pressure from wolves around the pen caused the trampling death of two newborn calves as the mother cows were agitated in the corral.

Graeber said he is particularly concerned about what will happen this winter if WDFW fails to address the problem.

“Many of my neighbors move their herds south in the winter, but I keep my cattle here at home and feed them. That means in a few months, I will be the last remaining food source for these wolves,” he related. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor