Apr 18

Wolves have been removed from the Endangered Species List after the U.S. Congress signed a provision in the budget bill, angering conservationists who have long been at odds with hunters over the status of the nation’s wolves.  

In the nearly 40 year history of the Endangered Species Act, this is the first time that the U.S. government has directly intervened in the delisting of a formerly endangered species, leading to concerns that this may set a new precedent for congress removing controversial species from the Endangered Species Act.

Photo of grey wolves' fur colour variation

Wolves ‘ravaging elk populations’ 

Once abundant in the U.S., the grey wolf was added to the Endangered Species Act in 1974, granting it protection from private hunters. Government-backed hunting in the 19th and 20th centuries virtually wiped out the grey wolf from swathes of the U.S., to prevent wolves from killing livestock as ranchers moved into vast stretches of plain. By the 1930s, the grey wolf was close to extinction in the U.S. 

Last year, biologists estimated that more than 1,600 wolves lived in the northern Rocky Mountains region, up from just over 400 a decade before. Hunters, who are pressing for more flexibility to manage wolf packs through controlled hunts, now say that wolf populations have met target recovery goals and are ravaging elk populations. Indeed, wildlife biologists in Yellowstone National Park said in January that the elk herd there had dropped by 72% since the 1995 wolf restoration. 

Unmanaged wolves have destroyed jobs, rural economies, and the opportunity for people to put food on their plate,” said Don Peay, founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife.

Photo of grey wolf dominance behaviour at carcass

Removal of federal protection 

The new law, which was signed on Friday by U.S. President Barack Obama, removes federal protection from grey wolves in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Washington and Oregon, allowing the states to manage their wolf populations. The law was also granted despite a U.S. district judge recently preventing the wolf from being removed from the Endangered Species List in Idaho and Montana.

The wolves’ champions now fear the worst. 

We may soon be witnessing the second large-scale extermination of wolves in the West,” said Suzanne Stone of Defenders of Wildlife, which has fought vigorously to maintain the wolves’ federal protection. 

Kierán Suckling, Executive Director of the Center for Biological Diversity, added “Congressional delisting without the opportunity to restore protections threatens to bring us back to the days when wolves and other wildlife were systematically poisoned on public lands.”

Photo of grey wolf, side view

Top predator 

The return of wolves to the western U.S. has allowed researchers the rare opportunity to study how an ecosystem changes when its top predator returns. Biologists discovered that elk, propelled by fear, moved away from many of their preferred grazing grounds. The lack of constant grazing allowed long dormant aspen stands to return, biodiversity to increase, and ecosystems to become healthier. 

Cristine Eisenberg of Oregon State University said in 2009 that wolves are not killing all of the elk, but rather have caused the animals to revert to more natural behaviour. 

[Wolves] have totally changed [the elk’s] behavior. For 60 years we’ve become used to complacent elk. These elk aren’t complacent. They’re on high alert,” said Eisenberg. 

Find out more about the grey wolf on ARKive.

Read more about this story at Mongabay – US wolves lose to politics

Alex Royan, ARKive Species Text Author