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Northern Rocky Mountains gray wolf
Mexican gray wolf
The Salt Lake Tribune, August 14, 2010

Gray wolves need national recovery plan
By Noah Greenwald

Last week in Montana, a federal judge overturned the Obama administration’s decision to remove Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. The ruling wasn’t unprecedented: The courts have blocked five previous attempts to lift protections from wolves in either the Rocky Mountains or the Great Lakes.

In this case, the judge concluded that splitting the northern Rockies population along state lines — retaining wolf protections in Wyoming while removing them in Montana, Idaho, Utah and other states — was “at its heart a political solution” that does not comply with the law.

We couldn’t agree more. Both the Bush and Obama administrations have taken a piecemeal approach to recovering these majestic canines, moving to remove protections even though wolf populations struggle to survive and occupy a fraction of their historic range in the lower 48 states.

Once — before bounties, government-funded extermination projects and expansive human settlement — wolves freely roamed much of the United States. They were abundant across most of the West’s mountains and valleys, including Utah, in the dense Eastern forests, the lush grasslands of the Great Plains and elsewhere. Scientists estimate there were once about 2 million wolves in North America.

Most are gone now, victims of an unwillingness primarily on the part of the livestock industry to coexist with a predator so wild and complex and uncontrolled. Today, a mere 5,000 to 6,000 wolves occupy roughly 5 percent of their historic range.

That’s why the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a national recovery plan for wolves. The plan would provide a much-needed road map for establishing wolf populations in suitable habitat in Utah, the Pacific Northwest, California, Great Basin, southern Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains and New England. Specifically, scientists have identified areas in the Uinta Mountains and elsewhere in the state of Utah that could support wolves.

Establishing wolf populations throughout much of the country — and corridors for individuals to travel back and forth — will not only increase numbers but will also allow for needed genetic exchange.

But the problem is, this sort of national perspective on wolf restoration has never been applied by the government.

Instead, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service relies on outdated, decades-old plans that view wolf restoration as a piecemeal project — a few wolf populations here and there — and underestimate how many are needed for true recovery. The recovery plan for the northern Rockies, for example, calls for a population of just 30 breeding pairs spread between three populations.

There were 115 wolf pairs in 2009, but because the plan sets the bar far lower than this, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, to varying degrees, would all like to drastically slash wolf populations from where they are now to near the very low thresholds established in the recovery plan. This would drastically reduce the potential for wolves to move into Utah.

We’ve learned so much more about wolves since these plans were written. We know more about their behavior, their ecology and what’s needed for healthy, sustainable populations.

But rather than embracing what we’ve learned and taking a national scope for wolf recovery, the government has been busy trying to lift protections and defending its own flawed decisions.

We hope our petition sparks a new national conversation about finishing the job of wolf restoration in a way that identifies suitable habitat, considers connectivity between populations, and gives this vital animal a chance to help us learn to live in balance. Unlike the government’s multiple failed attempts to prematurely wash their hands of wolf recovery, such an approach would have no problem passing legal muster.

Noah Greenwald is the endangered species program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, Portland, Ore.

Copyright 2010 The Salt Lake Tribune.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton