The US Congress is poised to remove much-needed federal protections from highly vulnerable gray wolves. Only immediate action can stop legislators from passing the aptly-named “War on Wolves Act.”

A Hunted History           

Throughout the settlement of the United States by Europeans in the 1800s, wolf-fearing local and federal governments encouraged (and in many cases even officially sponsored) a nationwide gray wolf eradication campaign that very nearly succeeded. Gray wolves once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, yet after a century of persecution they were extricated from much of their former range. By the 1960s only 300 gray wolves remained, hiding in woods of Michigan and Minnesota.

Still pursued by hunters and struggling to rebound, gray wolves were finally listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1974. The subsequent federal protection helped wolves recover and they even spread to other states. Yet as wolf populations grew, recreational hunters soon began arguing for the right to legally hunt gray wolves as part of conservation management.

Setting a Poor Precedent

The governments of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wyoming have recently proven themselves exceptionally unable to responsibly manage wolf populations alone. In 2012 the federal government lifted protections under the Endangered Species Act for gray wolves in those four states, leaving conservation policy entirely in the hands of state governments. The results were catastrophic.

Within a year seventeen entire family units of gray wolves were killed in Wisconsin, constituting nearly 20% of the state’s gray wolf population and of which half were pups. Hunters employed arguably inhumane methods such as baiting and hounding of wolves. Nearly a quarter of Minnesota’s wolves also died that year, of which trophy hunters can claim a large part, and Michigan conducted a gray wolf hunt despite the protests of its citizens. Meanwhile, Wyoming adopted an exceptionally aggressive stance in declaring 85% of the state a “predator zone” with no wolf hunting restrictions whatsoever, allowing an unlimited number of wolves of any age to be killed in any manner or season.

Such appalling management practices are not based in sound conservation science, permit ethically questionable treatment of highly intelligent and social animals, and utilise taxpayer dollars while going against the will of the people. The majority of Americans currently have positive views of gray wolves and the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin enjoy both the ecological benefits and substantial economic draw of gray wolves. Residents of these wolf states repeatedly demonstrate both pride in their gray wolf populations and the desire to protect them.

Potentially, these antagonistic policies are influenced by financial interest. State Fish and Wildlife Departments often garner the majority of their funding from sales associated with hunting (license sales, ammunition tax revenue, etc.) and therefore are sympathetic to the urgings of recreational hunters eager to shoot wolves. Relaxed laws on wolf hunting may even be a win-win for state governments, allowing them to maximise hunting licenses for both wolves and other game such as elk and deer.

In 2014 a federal court order finally ended the madness when the Humane Society of the United States sued and two separate federal courts ruled that the management plans of the states in question were utterly incapable of maintaining healthy wolf populations, placing gray wolves back under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

Gray wolf pups emerge from their den. Populations are expected to decline greatly if the bills pass. © USFWS/Flickr

Gray wolf pups emerge from their den. Populations are expected to decline greatly if the bills pass. © USFWS/Flickr

U.S. Congress Ready to Declare War

On January 17th of this year legislators introduced H.R. 424 in the House of Representatives and sister bill S. 164 in the Senate, known together as the “War on Wolves Act.” If both bills pass and President Trump signs, the War on Wolves Act will again strip from gray wolves the federal protections they currently enjoy, leaving populations at the mercy of state governments with less-than-perfect track records.

Species are occasionally removed from the Endangered Species List once their populations rebound to a healthy level (most famously America’s own national symbol, the bald eagle). Yet grey wolves do not meet that definition, as recent studies show that the US has only 5,000 or so gray wolves and that they are still greatly restricted to only a small portion of their original range. Neither scientists nor conservationists are advocating for their delisting.

It is likely that these lawmakers pushing the War on Wolves Act are motivated in no small part to cater to the vocal minority of recreational hunters and trophy hunters, as well as the powerful lobbyists for an agricultural industry intensely annoyed by any wolf attacks on cattle (despite the facts that wolf attacks amount to only a fraction of one percent of cattle deaths and that scientific studies have demonstrated predator removal does not significantly decrease livestock attacks).

The proposed War on Wolves Act also includes a sinister stipulation that bars concerned citizens and organisations from challenging wolf policy in court (as the Humane Society of the United States did in 2014) meaning that only Congress would have the ability to overturn the Act. This blatant and unjust ducking of judicial review all but admits that there are legal flaws in the War on Wolves Act.

Fight to Protect Wolves

If this bill passes, there is very real fear among scientists and conservationists that gray wolves will again be subjected to an extermination campaign either lead or tacitly sanctioned by state governments. Wolf populations are likely to reach perilously low numbers while enduring inhumane recreational hunts that lack judicial review and defy the will of the majority of citizens in wolf states.

In the damning words of Marjorie Mulhall, the Senior Legislative Counsel at environmental law organisation Earthjustice, “Americans widely hailed the return of wolves[…] as a triumph of the Endangered Species Act, but now this ‘War on Wolves Act’ would allow for the same unregulated killing that nearly wiped out the species in the first place.”

Congress has not yet voted and concerned American citizens should not underestimate the power of calling or emailing local Congress members to urge them to fight against the War on Wolves Act and not remove important protections from such a vulnerable and heavily targeted species.

 

References

Fikes, C. (Autumn 2016). “Kill the Beast: Controversial Wolf Culls.” Biosphere Magazine 20: 18-22.

Huta, L. (24/1/2017) “Why the Latest War on Wolves? Three Reasons You May Not Know.” Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/leda-huta/why-the-latest-war-on-wol_b_14370670.html?section=us_green

Pacelle, W. (19/1/2017) “Political shots fired as American lawmakers renew war on wolves.” A Humane Nation http://blog.humanesociety.org/wayne/2017/01/political-shots-fired-american-lawmakers-renew-war-wolves.html

Preso, T. (18/1/2017) “Congress Unleashes War on Wolves.” Earthjustice http://earthjustice.org/news/press/2017/congress-unleashes-war-on-wolves

White, A.B. “A History of Wild Wolves in the United States.” Gray Wolf Conservation http://www.graywolfconservation.com/Wild_Wolves/history.htm

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