For centuries, people settling throughout North America have tried to completely exterminate wolves, and it nearly worked; in 1973, when gray wolves were listed as endangered, only a few hundred remained in the continental United States. The protection proved to be a crowning success of Nixon’s Endangered Species Act, with wolf populations rebounding to the point that all but a pair of subspecies have been declared “fully recovered” by the Obama administration. That means, for the first time in four decades, wolves are fair game for hunters, which has sparked a controversy that challenges the very intent of landmark environmental laws like the ESA.
For background, check out this great piece from the Washington Post:
“When you look at our friends in the environmental movement, there are a lot of people out there who just don’t like the idea of animals being shot,” [Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan] Ashe said. “I understand that, but if you look at the Endangered Species Act, it’s not an animal protection act. It’s a law designed to prevent the extinction of a species.”
But how many wolves are enough?
The Fish and Wildlife Service approved plans in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming that require them to maintain a minimum of 450 adults and 45 breeding pairs of wolves. The population now stands at 1,774 adults and 109 breeding pairs, and the agency projects that hunting will bring the number of adults down to about 1,000.
Aside from invasive species whose populations boom in virgin territory, like snakes and spiders in Guam, it’s rare these days to hear of anything but species in decline. The ESA and related laws are designed to deal with just that: protecting declining species from going totally extinct. Whether or not the ESA goes far enough in protecting threatened species — it doesn’t call for action against, say, climate change, and actually getting species protected is beholden to the political process, as we saw during the Bush Administration — it’s designed to prevent disaster.
But what happens when the law produces a positive result? Ashe’s comments are telling. I suppose he means “animal protection” in terms of hunting and whatnot — the ESA of course doesn’t outlaw killing animals outright — but it’s the second part of his statement that embodies the vagaries of the ESA that have left it so open to political wrangling in the first place. The ESA is, at its core, numbers based: there’s a threshold for any species where number of individuals estimated to be alive is either low enough to be protected or high enough to be left alone, and — again, wrangling and debate aside — those numbers are based on ecologists’ estimations about how big a population needs to be to survive.
With the contentiousness of the ESA process, the end result is what we’re seeing right now in the wolf ruling: Because a lot of people don’t want wolves around, states have worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service to figure out how few wolves they can keep around while keeping the population relatively stable — and thus within the letter of the law. But that type of management, focused on the lower feasible limit of a population, ignores the effects a single species has on its environment.
Wolves prey on large mammals, like deer and elk, that don’t have too many other predators. Without wolves, deer and elk populations grew, and because they’re voracious foragers, those growing populations fundamentally changed local ecosystems. For example, when wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone, depressed beaver populations have rebounded. Why’s that? The presence of wolves forced elk, which once browsed heavily on the willows that beaver rely on, to be more vigilant and spend less time munching all of the willows to death. The end result is an ecosystem that’s more healthy and more robust.
So picking an arbitrary date like October 1 to say “Now there are enough wolves to shoot” is missing the point. We shouldn’t be concerning ourselves with having just enough individuals to sustain a species, we should be focused restoring and sustaining ecosystem health and diversity. So even if FWS ecologists decide that 1,000 wolves are the minimum required to stabilize the wolf population, there will still be environmental costs if we go out and kill all the wolves we can (700+ in this case) until we get to that point.
Image via Boreal Forest Library
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.