By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency tasked with protecting American wildlife, is getting closer to allowing trophy hunters and cattle ranchers to open season on the gray wolf, one of our nation’s most iconic—as well as most persecuted—animals.
USFWS director Aurelia Skipwith told the Associated Press in an interview this week that her agency is “working hard” to lift federal protections for gray wolves across the lower 48 states by the end of this year. “I’d say it’s very imminent,” she added.
The USFWS last year proposed a rule removing these protections: a rule nearly two million Americans opposed in comments to the agency because removing wolves from the ESA at this time could be disastrous for the long-term survival of these animals.
Skipwith claims that wolves have “biologically recovered” and that their removal from the list would demonstrate the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act: a false claim in itself, because the ESA requires that a species be recovered throughout a larger portion of its historic range to be taken off the list; wolves now inhabit approximately 15% of their historic range in the contiguous United States.
What Skipwith conveniently left out of that interview is the real reason these protections are being removed: as a handout to trophy hunters and the meat industry who have long wanted such an outcome and now have a close ally in the agency. Skipwith, who was appointed director in December last year, has had no reservations about aligning herself openly with trophy hunting interests and earlier this year she was a speaker at the annual convention of Safari Club International, one of the world’s largest gathering of trophy hunters.
Scientists have warned that the FWS proposal to delist wolves does not represent the best available science on wolf conservation. What’s more, if wolves were delisted, states will be empowered with managing wolves on their lands, and we already know what that will look like.
In 2011, Congress directed the USFWS to remove ESA protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho, as a nod to agriculture and trophy hunting interests. Wolves in Wyoming were also delisted in 2017. These decisions have led to thousands of wolves being massacred across these states, using exceptionally cruel methods like being chased down by GPS-collared hounds, being caught in steel-jawed leghold traps and wire snares, and even being run down with snowmobiles or large truck.
Altogether, nearly 6,000 wolves have been killed in these and the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, where federal protections for wolves were removed in 2011 until a successful HSUS lawsuit returned them to the endangered species list in 2014. Of the nearly 1,500 wolves killed before our suit brought a stop to the vicious recreational hunting, trapping, snaring and hounding that was allowed during that period, many were just pups. If federal protections were to be lifted now, these are the animals who would be most at risk of being wiped out again. We simply cannot let that happen.
The beauty of a wolf inspires awe and admiration in most hearts; these are highly sentient animals with close family ties. We also rely on wolves to keep our environment in balance. These keystone native carnivores play a critical role in the ecosystems they inhabit, driving biodiversity and restoring balance. They help keep deer and elk herds strong by removing sick, weak and old animals and help reduce the spread of disease among those species, including chronic wasting disease.
On the other hand, there is no evidence that wolves pose a serious threat to livestock—which is the excuse the USFWS has most often cited for delisting them. In a report last year, Humane Society of the United States researchers compared livestock losses data released by state agencies, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, and the USFWS, and found that the federal data was highly exaggerated and that wolves accounted for less than 1% of cattle and sheep losses in the states where they live.
The USFWS’s attack on wolves may be one of its worst actions in recent years, but it’s hardly the only one; the agency has been working assiduously to dismantle the Endangered Species Act itself. But Skipwith would do well to remember that her job is to make policies in the best interests of all Americans and American wildlife; not for the benefit of a handful of special interests. We urge her to toss this disastrous plan before it’s too late. Wolves have a powerful ally in the majority of Americans who value them and want to see them protected; with their support, we stand ready to fight with all of our might against this shameless abuse of power.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.