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March 10, 2009

On Federal Protections, We're Not Crying Wolf

We knew Sarah Palin would be murder on wolves had she been elected, but we expected more of the Obama Administration and its political appointees.

While we have had some strong pronouncements for animal protection from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and there are many signs that positive changes are afoot more broadly within the Obama Administration, we’ve got our very first dose of awful news from the newly installed leaders in the executive branch.

Gray wolf in snow
© iStockphoto

On Friday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that his agency would proceed with the delisting of both the Great Lakes and Northern Rockies wolf populations. I wrote about the issue after we won several court cases to block maneuvers in the final years of the Bush Administration to take wolves off the list of threatened and endangered species—which would have paved the way for the states to set up wolf hunting and trapping seasons and the killing of thousands of wolves in the lower 48 states. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter even indicated he wanted to be the first to shoot a wolf in his state.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel put a hold on all late-term Bush Administration rules upon taking charge and said all of these proposed rules would be subject to review, including the let-the-states-take-care-of-wolves declarations. Unfortunately, the review has concluded, and it’s the worst possible news for wolves.

The Interior Department has tried four times to shirk its responsibility to protect wolves, and now here comes the fifth attempt. Just as we reacted in prior circumstances, we’ll ask the federal courts to intervene to stay the hand of those who would slay the wolf.

The minor expansion in wolf numbers since they’ve been protected under the terms of the Endangered Species Act has had beneficial trophic cascade effects in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes ecosystems, limiting numbers of their prey, protecting forests, and having a wide range of other salutary effects on everything from foxes to songbirds. The wolf recovery efforts should continue, and delisting efforts are premature. The restoration efforts for wolves should not be set back by the eerie thud of steel jaw traps closing on the legs of wolves or the report of semi-automatic gun fire targeting these remarkable animals.

The fact is, the state fish and wildlife agencies in these regions are still in the grip of the hunting lobby, and their wolf management decisions are being driven by an interest in artificially inflating moose, deer, and elk populations so that hunters can shoot more of these animals. To paraphrase outdoor writer and conservationist Ted Williams, wolves don’t pay for hunting licenses, only hunters do, and therein lies the problem with modern game management.

It’s the same parochial line of thought that Sarah Palin has demonstrated for years in Alaska, where humans attack wolves from the ground and from the air.

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