Andrew Wetzler is director of the Land & Wildlife Program at the NRDC. This Op-Ed originally appeared on the NRDC blog Switchboard. Wetzler contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Tuesday marked the official end of the public comment period on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's proposed nation-wide regulation removing the gray wolf from the federal list of endangered species.
The proposed regulation is the culmination of the administration's push to finally strip every gray wolf in the country (outside of a small population in Arizona and New Mexico) of federal Endangered Species Act protections. If the Fish and Wildlife Service gets its way, not only will established wolf populations in states like Idaho and Minnesota continue to be unprotected, but any wolves who make it to other states — California, Maine, Utah or Colorado, for example — will also be completely at the mercy of local governments.
Some of those states may manage wolves wisely, but far more have shown a pattern of disturbing hostility to wolves and a complete aversion to wolf recovery. Just last week, news broke of a wolf killing "tournament" in Idaho. The Utah state legislature regularly appropriates hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to private groups to lobby against any wolf protections. Wyoming has designated over 80 percent of the state a wolf "free fire zone," where wolves may be shot at any time of the year and in unlimited quantities. In Michigan, the state legislature has passed laws to bypass a popular referendum, which was almost certain to prohibit a public wolf hunt. And gray wolves that have made it to Maine have been shot by hunters, who claim they mistook the wolves for coyotes.
For all the success that the wolf has enjoyed in some parts of the country, there remain huge areas of suitable habitat for wolf populations to establish themselves in the lower-48 states. From the vast forests of northern New England, to the rich elk and deer habitat in Colorado, to northern California's forests and rugged mountains, true wolf recovery means restoring healthy wolf populations not to a tiny fraction of its suitable habitat, but as the Endangered Species Act right demands, to a "significant portion" of that range.
These wild areas cry out for a return of their wolves. As ecologists now recognize, the presence of wolves and other top-predators are a crucial part of restoring the health of our wild places. From vegetation near streams, to trout and beaver populations, to song birds, owls and foxes, we now know that the entire fabric of ecosystems are transformed and made more healthy, diverse and resilient when wolves are present.
Yet, despite this, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Obama administration have continued their inexorable march to strip wolves of the few federal protections they now enjoy. And I can't help but wonder, why? It's not a popular decision. Close to 1,000,000 comments have been filed with the administration opposing the delisting proposal.
It's not the science. As NRDC makes clear in our comment letter, the scientific evidence justifying the delisting of wolves, particularly in the Northeast is shaky at best. It's not the law. There are numerous legal problems with the delisting. And it's probably not politics. Unlike a few years ago, there are no vulnerable Democrats in the U.S. Senate demanding a wolf delisting. My money rests on bureaucratic inertia and a lack of vision. Regardless, I hope the administration sees the error of its ways. If not, NRDC and our conservation allies will be there to fight, every step of the way.
This Op-Ed originally appeared as "Public Comment Closes on the Obama Administration's Proposal to Remove Protections for Wolves Across the Country -- Narrow Thinking Where We Need Bold Vision" on the NRDC blog Switchboard. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.