A provision in a federal budget bill signed into law this month takes wolves in several Northwestern states off the Endangered Species List. Guest columnist Brenda Peterson says that returning management of wolves back to states could have dire consequences for habitat and other wildlife.
WHEN Congress delisted the gray wolves in their recent budget cuts deal, I remembered the great conservationist — and one-time wolf hunter, Aldo Leopold — writing in 1949: “I was young then, full of trigger-itch. I thought that because few wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise.”
But when Leopold watched the “fierce green fire dying” in the eyes of a female wolf he had just killed, he had a revelation: “There was something new to me in those eyes,” he wrote. “After seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”
In one moment of cross-species connection, Aldo Leopold’s assumptions about wolf management changed. He realized he had too narrowly focused his sights on hunting — not habitat. His worldview had been limited to the needs of one human species dominating the whole ecosystem. The dying wolf taught Leopold what we teach our children: To share. Home. Habitat.
Leopold never killed another wolf. Instead, he devoted his life to conserving this much-maligned and scapegoated species. Leopold would have celebrated the successful wolf-reintroduction programs in this country that are a model for the whole world. Farsighted and wildly popular, the wolf-reintroduction programs in Yellowstone and the northern Rockies provide more than tourism income. These top predators also restore balance to elk and deer populations, which have long overgrazed grasslands.
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Wolf biologist Cristina Eisenberg at Oregon State University and author of “The Wolf’s Tooth” studies the wolves in Glacier National Park. She says that since wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone, scientists have documented “rapid recovery of over-browsed aspen, willows and cottonwoods, stream bank stabilization in eroded streams, and a dramatic increase in biodiversity of songbirds.”
“Wolves are keystone predators who nurture the entire ecosystem,” Eisenberg explains. “If we eradicate wolves or lower their numbers, the whole system will grow impoverished and collapse.”
On April 15, President Obama signed a budget bill that included a rider that removes wolves from the federal endangered species list in Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon, Idaho, Montana and north Utah.
This move turns wolf management over to the states. Because Wyoming has no federally approved wolf-management plan, wolves are still protected there.
“But wolves provide the ultimate budget cuts,” Eisenberg argues. “Wolves in an ecosystem naturally restore it, thereby saving the government billions of dollars in habitat and wildlife restoration.”
Within days of the wolf delisting, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed a bill declaring the gray wolf a “disaster emergency,” giving him more authority over his own state if wolves are re-listed as endangered. According to the Los Angeles Times, “the estimated 700-plus wolves in Idaho account for nearly half of the wolf population in the region.” Those numbers could be lethally managed down to 150 wolves in each state.
This is not sustainable wolf management or farsighted habitat conservation. It is a return to the disastrous policies of the past that drove the wolves to extinction, the very same policies that Aldo Leopold repented of as he watched his last wolf die.
This is just the beginning of the gutting of the Endangered Species Act, without any public hearing, scientific consultation or debate. Never before has Congress acted alone to remove an animal from the Endangered Species list. Are we really going to cede our environmental protection to tea partyers drunk on power and political gain?
Why are there no tea-party advocates for conservation, for sustainable science and habitat preservation? The tea party is always talking about protecting our own children from massive debt. But what about protecting our children from environmental degradation? What does it matter how much money they can boast they have slashed from the budget if we don’t also give our children a healthy home? A habitat shared with other predators who keep the world green and balanced?
“Everybody benefits when wolves take their place again in the food chain,” explains wolf biologist and ranger Rick McIntyre, who has studied wolves for decades in Yellowstone.
Seeing wild wolves as allies in our work to keep our habitat healthy is a practical vision that should carry more weight than the nonscientific deal-making in budget-cutting backrooms. Science, not politics, should guide us as we plan for our futures.
In a recent National Wildlife Federation poll, 63 percent of Americans opposed a judge’s decision to remove wolves from Yellowstone and central Idaho. It is time for all of us — not only hunters, ranchers and tea partyers — to raise our voices about the future.
Usually with ESA delisting, there is a 60-day period for public comment and litigation. But in this unprecedented political, not scientific, delisting of wolves, there is no option for litigation. In a time of climate change, what does this political overreaching into science mean for other species, like the polar bear? How cynical to replace sound and sustainable science by playing political poker with other species.
We can howl to Congress and our state governments to protest this unsustainable delisting of wolves and keep them protected under the Endangered Species Act. The tea party is a young and one-dimensional movement of budget-cutting hunters. Their trigger-itch against the environment has not yet learned the lessons of shared habitat and the “green fire” that other top predators teach us. Green is so much more than the color of money — it is the radiance of a healthy, green Earth.
Brenda Peterson lives in Seattle. She covered the first wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone for The Seattle Times.