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The Gray Wolf: Out of the Woods?

Moving the protected predator off the endangered species list
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Editor's Note: We are posting this story from our April 2003 issue because of news that the gray wolf is being removed from the U.S. Endangered Species list.

Only six domestic animal species have ever earned their way off the U.S. Endangered Species List. The gray wolf is closing in on becoming the seventh. Although many wolf biologists back the decision, not all wildlife advocates are cheering the pending status change.

In 1974, after a century of aggressive extermination efforts had nearly extinguished gray wolves in the lower 48 states, the Endangered Species Act took effect, and the dwindling species was whisked onto the list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) subsequently initiated recovery programs for the gray wolf in three regions, setting population goals for the West, East and Southwest.
 
With federal protection and reintroduction programs to seed the West with ecologically appropriate wolves from Canada, gray wolf populations burgeoned. Today there are 44 breeding pairs (a total of 664 wolves) in the Western zone, exceeding the target of 30. In the Eastern area, over 3,800 wolves live in the Great Lakes region—almost triple the target number—and a new population of over 600 wolves teems in the states around Minnesota. (In the Southwest, recovery of the Mexican gray wolf is still in its infancy, and the animal’s endangered status will remain intact.)

Because the wolf populations have now met their goals for the West and East, the FWS wants to reclassify the wolf from endangered to threatened and delist the species in all states outside its historical range. The FWS fully expects the reclassification proposal to pass this spring and hopes to delist the populations in the Northwest and Midwest in the next year.

Several wildlife groups, however, protest that the proposed status change is premature. The wolf has not returned to the Northeast, where it was formerly an important predator in that ecosystem. They also argue that out West the population is too thin for the wolves to set out from the recovery zones and into their former ranges in the southern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest.

FWS biologists respond that their job is to ensure that the wolf is no longer in danger of extinction, not to restore the species to every place it could live. “The Endangered Species List is not a tool for other agendas. The act mandates that if a species doesn’t need protection anymore, you must remove it,” insists Ed Bangs, wolf recovery coordinator for the West. L. David Mech, wolf expert and senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, agrees that the gray wolf is no longer at risk of extinction in the lower 48 states. “When recovery goals were planned, certain numbers were set that would signify recovery. I see no evidence that those numbers were too low.” Mech believes the genetic diversity and population growth rate in these numbers are sufficient for maintaining viable populations.

Even so, opponents of the change contend that the wolf is unique among recovered species: it is the only one that was deliberately exterminated. Because deep-seated animosities against the wolf still exist, wolves face fiercer threats than other recovered species.

Despite some persisting hostility toward the gray wolf, experts assert that the situation is not the same as it was before 1974. Attitudes have grown more tempered with public education, which Mech expects will continue to serve the animal: “We started off 20 years ago saying, ‘Save the wolf.’ We’ve done that. Now the thing to say is, ‘Manage the wolf.’”

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