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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Throwing Wolves to the Wolves

On Inauguration Day, while the new president and vice president were still shaking hands and sitting down to lunch on Capitol Hill, new White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was already hard at work. Racing from the ceremony to the White House, Emanuel quickly issued what is now known as the “Rahm Memo”—one of the most important directives of the Obama Administration’s first week in office. The document puts an indefinite hold on all pending last-minute regulatory actions by the outgoing Bush Administration, and directs the new Cabinet staff to reconsider those regulatory changes before taking further action.

The New York Times on Sunday published an editorial urging that several new rules that recently became law should be quickly undone—such as those ending the 25-year ban on carrying loaded weapons in national parks, and relaxing restrictions on water and air pollution from factory farms. The other proposed rules that have not yet been finalized, perhaps because the agencies simply ran out of time, are thankfully now frozen and under review.

Graywolfcreditgarykramerusfws We hope the Obama Administration will take a hard look at one of those rules in particular: the Interior Department’s last-minute decision to strip gray wolves in the United States of their protections under the federal Endangered Species Act. It’s a bad proposal that marks the culmination of an eight-year saga in which federal officials attempted to strip wolves of ESA protections at least a half dozen different ways, only to be turned back by courts in Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington, D.C.

The agency’s first misguided effort involved splitting the wolf’s range into several large chunks, and then giving most wolves less protection by downlisting them from “endangered” to “threatened”—a scheme that two federal courts independently struck down. Undeterred by this judicial rebuke, the agency embarked on an even more brazen effort to remove federal protections from wolves by dividing them into two populations—the Rocky Mountains and the western Great Lakes—and delisting them entirely. Just this past year, at the request of The Humane Society of the United States and other groups, federal courts struck down both rules and restored protections to the wolves.

After being rebuffed by the courts six times in three and a half years, one might think that the government would have learned its lesson and refocused its efforts on wolf recovery. Instead, the agency adopted the opposite approach, rushing to delist the gray wolf yet again before the change in administrations. Remarkably, they were in such a hurry to beat the transition date they didn’t even provide public notice and comment, as required by federal law.

They’ve simply thrown a Hail Mary—hoping this latest attempt to strip wolves of all federal protections will finally stick. We don’t think it’s going to cut it, either in the courts or with the American people. And we’re heartened that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said he will revisit many of the department’s recent actions.

Unfortunately, there has been more public attention to the plight of the Rocky Mountain wolf population than the Great Lakes population, while both are in dire need of federal protection. Even some environmental groups appear to have bought into the idea of splitting the baby.

But wolves within the Great Lakes region are subject to numerous threats which show that the ESA’s protections are still necessary. For example, scientists have shown that disease is causing high levels of mortality in Minnesota wolves, and that these disease impacts might spread to wolves in Michigan and Wisconsin. 

WOLF Perhaps most troubling is the fact that, upon delisting, wolves would be subjected to widespread killings at the hands of hostile state wildlife agencies. The killing of wolves would immediately begin under intensive lethal control programs already drafted by Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Sport hunting and commercial trapping of wolves would likely follow.

Collectively, the plans in these three states would permit nearly a 50 percent decline in the Great Lakes wolf population. Under the Minnesota plan, landowners in 60 percent of the state would be able to kill wolves even absent any immediate threat to domestic animals. The state would authorize the creation of “predator control areas”—i.e., free-fire zones which could remain open for several months after any single wolf causes a problem for livestock. The Minnesota plan even resurrects a form of the old bounty system by paying out $150 for each wolf killed.

All of this cries out for one thing: a new approach. The Rahm Memo provides the new administration a golden opportunity to put aside the failed policy of wolf persecution, and dig into the hard work of coming up with humane wildlife management solutions that are more successful over the long run.

We are hopeful that the Obama Administration will demonstrate a renewed commitment to endangered species protection, and will simply withdraw the latest wolf delisting rules, rather than waste federal funds to hopelessly defend these illegal rules. They need to hear from the humane community about the importance of protecting all wolves, but especially about the need to defend the Great Lakes population. Stripping away their federal protections would not only have dire consequences for gray wolves, but also for the future of the Endangered Species Act as a whole.


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