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Gray wolves need time

By Editorial board
The Register-Guard

Editorial: Recovery has been robust, but it’s not yet complete; the federal government should abandon its premature plan to remove protections for gray wolves. Last month, 16 scientists responsible for most of the research that the Fish and Wildlife Service used in its latest delisting decision sent a letter to agency Director Dan Ashe protesting that their findings had been mischaracterized. “We do not believe the rule reflects the conclusions of our work or the best available science concerning the recovery of wolves,” they wrote.

The federal government should abandon its premature plan to remove endangered species protections for gray wolves in the lower 48 states — including Oregon, where the apex predator’s numbers have yet to reach sustainable levels.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last Friday formally proposed the elimination of most remaining federal Endangered Species Act restrictions across the country, saying that the gray wolf has sufficiently recovered after being hunted nearly to extinction by the mid-20th century.

That conclusion conflicts with warnings from many wildlife biologists that the species’ numbers have not reached sustainable levels and that the gray wolf has only begun to re-establish itself outside the northern Rockies and western Great Lakes.

Last month, 16 scientists responsible for most of the research that the Fish and Wildlife Service used in its latest delisting decision sent a letter to agency Director Dan Ashe protesting that their findings had been mischaracterized. “We do not believe the rule reflects the conclusions of our work or the best available science concerning the recovery of wolves,” they wrote.

Earlier this year, Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., along with 50 other members of the U.S. House of Representatives, asked Ashe to continue existing protections for gray wolves. They called wolf recovery “a wildlife success story in the making” — but one that has not yet reached completion.

It was a rare bipartisan plea for an endangered species, yet the Fish and Wildlife Service continues to pursue a delisting strategy that appears to be driven more by hunting, ranching and political interests than science.

Those same interests influenced the federal government’s decision two years ago to withdraw Endangered Species Act protection in the Northern Rockies, Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington and give the job of wolf management to the states. Since that delisting, more than a thousand wolves have been killed in sanctioned hunts, including nearly 700 wolves in Idaho alone. In Idaho, wolves in four-fifths of the state can now be killed without a license at any time for almost any reason. Montana’s “management plan” will allow hunters and trappers to kill up to three wolves apiece this winter.

Yet Ashe, in his news conference last week, went out of his way to praise the state agencies that have authorized such large-scale wolf hunts. “We need to be dependent on the states to carry out wildlife management on a broad scale. And states are very competent to do that,” he said.

Even if such praise were justified, Ashe ignores the fundamental problem with his latest delisting decision: Scientists and conservation groups warn that it will effectively limit the further expansion of the wolves’ current range, which is less than 10 percent of its historic reach.

In fairness, Ashe is right to call federal wolf protection to date as an endangered species success story.

While wolves were once abundant in the West before white settlers arrived, they were hunted nearly to extinction — and were wiped out entirely in Oregon — before a small number were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park and in central Idaho in the mid-1990s. Under federal protection, the animals thrived. At least 1,600 wolves now populate the northern Rockies, although last year the population fell by a disturbing 7 percent, primarily because of the 2011 delistings and the recreational hunting that resulted.

Sally Jewell, the new secretary of the Interior, should intercede and pull the plug on the proposed delisting. Gray wolves need additional time and protection to continue their recovery, find their balance and expand their range so that they can survive — and thrive — for years to come.

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