Two bills recently introduced seek to overturn reinstatement of protections for wolves. Both H.R. 843 (Kline, MN) and H.R. 884 (Ribble, WI), could, if passed, seriously weaken the Endangered Species Act by setting a precedent for exempting species from ESA protections. HR 843, HR 884, and other similar policies to statutorily delist the gray wolf, both jeopardize wolf recovery and undermine the ESA, one of our most effective, popular and important environmental laws. Retaining basic federal protections for wolves will assure that decades of work, research and tax dollars invested in recovering this important species are not lost. While wolf numbers have improved since Endangered status protections were put in place, wolf populations remain vulnerable to hostile management policies, disease, illegal killing and loss of habitat.
The December 2014 decision to return federal protections to gray wolves in the Great Lakes halted aggressive and hostile state management policies in process of reducing wolf populations through recreational hunting and trapping: over 1,500 wolves were killed for recreation and trophies in the Great Lakes states alone since 2012. This total does not reflect the hundreds of wolves removed by USDA Wildlife Services and State agencies, or illegal kills. Moreover, Wisconsin State Management policy was actively reducing its stabilizing wolf population, about 880 wolves in 2012, to a population of 350 or less, largely in response to hunting interests.
Both H.R. 843 and H.R. 884 falsely claim livestock losses to wolves are "large" and that designating wolves as Endangered "leaves no recourse to livestock producers who need to protect their livestock." In fact, all wild predators combined comprise less than 2 percent of all livestock losses, with wolves responsible for less than 1 percent of all livestock loss - about .02 percent of cattle losses and less than 1 percent of sheep losses. According to US Fish and Wildlife statistics since 2004, more livestock are lost to respiratory illness or to weather related events than are lost to wolves. But in the instances when wolves are confirmed culprits, the US Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services retains the ability to respond to livestock depredations and assist operators to mitigate losses, including through the implementation of nonlethal deterrents, so the claim that returning federal protections to wolves hurts agriculture is false. Ironically, the animal most responsible for abatement claims by agricultural producers in Wisconsin is the white tailed deer, which is responsible for more agricultural loss than all other abatement-eligible wildlife species combined.
The practice of killing predators may not be the most effective for protecting livestock. A 2014 Washington State University study demonstrates a 6 percent increase of livestock loss to predators in areas where wolves are recreationally hunted and trapped and illegally killed. The study notes the destabilizing effects of hunting and trapping wolves actually encourage livestock depredation. Similar statistics are documented in Wisconsin in a study underway. These findings support conclusions reached in a 2011 University of Montana study which found non-lethal deterrents, such as fladry, the use of guardian animals, motion and radio activated lights and human presence, or "range riders," protect livestock more successfully, long term, and less expensively, than targeted, lethal removal of wolves. The study concludes "changes in husbandry practices could decrease depredation risk." Producers who utilize these effective husbandry practices suffer fewer losses because nearby wolves, as adaptive and social animals, learn not to use livestock as a food source. Also, since they are territorial, they keep other predators who may depredate on livestock away.
Recent surveys in Wisconsin attest to overwhelming support for wolves. A 2014 Human Dimensions Survey conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) reveals that 83 percent of citizens throughout the state, and 69 percent living within wolf range favor the presence of wolves at or above populations published at the time of the survey, about 880 wolves, the levels at which the state's wolf population appeared to be stabilizing. The majority of Wisconsin citizens oppose the drastic reduction in wolf population WDNR policies were in the process of executing, including the use of dogs in wolf hunting and allowing for year round training of hunting dogs in wolf territory.
The decision to return ESA protections to wolves found that these hostile state management practices violate the Endangered Species Act by replicating conditions under which wolves were extirpated, policies which managed wolves as vermin. The wolf, as an apex predator, in sufficient numbers and with protections in place to mitigate disruption of breeding and pack structure, is a vital part of healthy, balanced, and resilient ecosystems. If you want native forest regeneration, you need wolves. If you want healthy riparian environments, you need wolves. If you want abundant upland game bird habitat, you need wolves.
HR 843, if passed, would prevent wolves from being designated or protected by Endangered Species status now, and in the future. HR 884 would resign wolves in the Great Lakes States and Wyoming to the hostile policies which prompted a return to Endangered status within a few short years of management by the states. Both bills make false claims about losses to wolves suffered by livestock producers.
Through education and management policies designed to foster coexistence, citizens and landowners, hunters and agricultural producers may learn to allow wolves their rightful place as apex predators in healthy and resilient ecosystems, insuring healthy and abundant wildlife and wildlife habitat for future generations. We should not take steps to weaken the Endangered Species Act, or to weaken protections for wolves before they have had a chance to colonize suitable portions of their historic range, before they have had a chance to function in their ability to encourage and protect native forest regeneration and control ungulate disease, before agricultural producers have learned to adopt the most effective and least costly methods of livestock protection and wildlife coexistence.
(Top photo: 2014 Lamar Canyon pups, Yellowstone)