Are wolves important to our ecosystem? For many years, people thought that wolves were dangerous to humans and killed them for sport, eventually working toward eliminating the species. Between the years of 1850 and 1900, it is estimated that over a million wolves were killed, and in 1907, the order was given to attempt total wolf annihilation in the U.S. But the wolf species is somewhat resilient, and although they were nearly destroyed, a remnant of the species still existed. Wolf sightings began in some of the northern states, including Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Michigan—and even as far south as Wyoming. In the 1960s, the protection of the remaining wolf population began when a precursor to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was brought into existence. But shortly after the ESA was signed into law by President Nixon, the gray wolf became one of the first animals to be officially listed as an endangered species under the act. This listing covers all types and populations of wolf that remain in the 48 contiguous states.
The Mexican Gray Wolf
Remnants of the Mexican gray wolf, indigenous to Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico, were captured in order to breed in captivity and repopulate the region as recovery efforts began. Over a three-year period, only seven of them were recovered to breed.
The Mexican gray wolf had begun to die out not only due to hunters—although hunting was a primary factor in their near-extinction. Settlers brought non-native livestock to the southwest, which destroyed the wolves’ habitat; hunters began killing off the wolves’ prey as well. With their habitats destroyed and hunters after them, the wolf species did not have much chance of survival. But by 1982, the Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan was proposed in order to repopulate the Southwest with the wolves and establish a goal of 100 wolves by 2006.
Measures of Success
While the wolf population has increased to about 110 in the southwestern U.S. states and about 20 in Mexico, the undertaking of recovery is far from over. As of 2013, the Mexican gray wolf was still the most endangered mammal in the U.S., and livestock industry leaders still lobby for the extermination of wolves in order to protect their herds. The wolf species is still under threat and persecution, and there is still work to be done.
Endangered or Just Threatened?
Over the years, the issue of wolf protection has been debated. Several agencies have pushed for the reclassification of wolves from endangered to threatened, a less critical status but still imperiled nonetheless. In 2003, most gray wolves were reduced to threatened status, and have been returned and removed again from the list four times since then. Several states have fought the original ruling downgrading their status, and federal and state courts have been dueling ever since. In 2013, the Obama administration proposed stripping the protection of the ESA from gray wolves in the continental U.S. except for the southwest, claiming that the protection of wolves is no longer needed. But proponents for wolf conservation disagree, and multiple courts have agreed that it is indeed too soon to remove wolves from the endangered species list.
However, members of Congress are still undecided. Even in 2017, Congress is still debating dropping wolf protection in some states. Some Congress members feel that states are equipped to handle the protection of wolves on their own, but the states still want the federal protection. And some lawmakers feel that wolves should be removed from protection in order to make room for other species that may seem to be more threatened.
Scientific, Not Political
Scientists, conservationists, and biologists feel that despite the wolf population’s increase over the last several years, there is still too much threat to their habitat to remove protection. In addition, insufficient time has passed to ensure that the wolf populations that have experienced some degree of recovery will remain stable. Wolves are still being hunted in too many states, and the livestock debate has not been settled. Norman Bishop, the former biologist for Yellowstone National Park who spearheaded public outreach for the reintroduction of wolves, has said that in his opinion, the plan to delist wolves from the endangered species list is “premature.” Many feel that a political decision in the endangered species arena is inappropriate and that science, not politics, should be the driving force behind wolf conservation.
If the process to delist wolves from the endangered species list goes through, the wolf population will be left to fend for itself. Unprotected wolves will have a tough time recolonizing areas of Utah and Colorado, and the Mexican gray wolves won’t be able to move north on their own—which will potentially reverse some of the progress that has already been made. Some wolves will need assistance migrating to certain regions in order to prevent inbreeding, which will be left by the wayside if federal protection is dropped. In that case, states must rely on their regulations to protect the wolves within their boundaries.
Ultimately, the issue of wolf protection may not be resolved anytime soon. All we can do is our best to assist in getting the word out and supporting conservation efforts. Keep in mind that wolves are desperately needed for our ecosystem, balancing it out and playing an important role in the animal life chain. Efforts to eliminate wolf species entirely should never have taken place—if they hadn’t, wolves probably wouldn’t be endangered today and this debate would never have existed.
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