Science supports decision to delist wolves


by Wes Swaffar

On May 4, Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced that gray wolves will be delisted from the Endangered Species Act, removing federal protection and returning management authority to states. This is the latest decision in what has been a decadelong battle surrounding how gray wolves are managed in the Northern Rockies.

In response to the recent delisting, environmental groups, states and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service are donning their legal armor for what will surely be a vicious and litigious battle. Already, environmental advocacy groups such as Alliance for the Wild Rockies are filing suit to challenge the recent delisting on grounds that it was unconstitutional. These groups warn that a return to state management will reduce numbers to the “brink of extinction” and advocate for relisting of wolves in the Northern Rockies.

Although environmental advocacy groups hope to challenge the decision to turn wolf management to states, the “best available science” supports the most recent delisting decision. Studies published as recently as 2010 indicate that within the Northern Rockies, wolves are more genetically connected and occupy more territory since their reintroduction.

Since their reintroduction to the Northern Rockies in the 1990s, wolves have successfully colonized vast expanses of wildlands, proving their ability to exist within a matrix of human communities. What’s more, overall numbers are rising: wolf numbers in the Northern Rockies have grown from 100 in 1995 to over 1,700 in 2009. Given this success, it’s important to ask: why not turn management over to states?

Despite high genetic connectivity, extensive territory and growing numbers, environmental advocacy groups are unwilling to allow states to assume management authority of gray wolves. This continued “adversarial legalism” compounds existing conflict and starves management agencies of precious dollars needed for planning and management. Ultimately, the future of wolves in the Northern Rockies will depend on how well humans are able to work together toward a solution.

Collaborative solutions can be developed for contentious issues, but it involves a compromise from all involved parties. Wolves aren’t going anywhere in the Northern Rockies. It is time to stop fighting, start talking and finally working toward a solution.

Wes Swaffar of Missoula wrote this opinion piece as part of a graduate-level course in the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz.