In an effort championed by Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Ed Markey (D-MA), 52 House members sent a letter to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urging an about-face on the agency's anticipated proposal to remove federal protections for wolves across most of the lower 48 United States. As noted in the letter, wolves remain absent or have only just begun to recover in areas where there is room enough for these important and beautiful animals, including the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rockies and the Northeast.
An estimated two million wolves once roamed freely across North America, including most of the United States. But bounties, a federal extermination program and human settlement drove the species to near extinction in most of the lower 48. With Endangered Species Act protection, wolf populations saw tremendous recovery in the northern Rocky Mountains and the Western Great Lakes states. This recovery is now at risk from aggressive wolf hunting and trapping state policies that are intended to substantially reduce or even eliminate wolves across large areas. The letter correctly recognizes that this reflects a continuing prejudice towards wolves:
"In particular, we are concerned that the same prejudice towards wolves that led to their extirpation across nearly the entire coterminous United States is still present today and, not only is threatening to undo the gains achieved in the northern Rocky Mountains and western Great Lakes, but will prevent their recovery in additional areas."
Bowing to political pressure from wolf opponents, the Fish and Wildlife Service has no plans for wolf recovery beyond the northern Rockies and western Great Lakes. In states where federal delisting has occurred more than 1,700 of the 5,000-6,000 recovered wolves in the lower 48 have been killed since protections were removed in 2011.
Research has shown that returning wolves to ecosystems sets off a chain of events that benefits many species, including songbirds and beavers that gain from a return of stream-side vegetation, which thrives in the absence of browsing elk that must move more often to avoid wolves. And pronghorn and foxes are aided by wolves' control of coyote populations. Protecting ecosystems upon which species depend is a specific goal of the Endangered Species Act -- all the more reason for expanded, rather than diminished, wolf recovery efforts.
It's not too late for Interior Secretary nominee Sally Jewell to change course and support further wolf recovery. Although a majority of Americans consistently support wolf protection, it is likely to take a generation or more for our culture as a whole to appreciate wolves and the valuable roles they play. In the meantime, they need continued protection.