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The Heart of the Wolf Recovery Problem -- Science

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Visit NRDCs Switchboard BlogA federal judge recently ruled to return endangered species protections to wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains.  Given that NRDC was one of the plaintiff groups in the lawsuit, we are obviously pleased with the outcome.  The court ruled that the federal government cannot subdivide a population along state lines removing protections in some states (Idaho and Montana) while maintaining protection in another state (Wyoming) because that state is unwilling to develop a management plan that the federal government will approve. 

Now that this legal issue has been addressed, it’s time to get back to the heart of the problem – scientifically defensible recovery standards.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service developed a recovery goal for this region over 20 years ago and if you go back and read the recovery plan you won’t find a single scientific citation supporting their proposed goal of 10 breeding pairs (or approximately 100 wolves) in each of the three states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.  The Service has since spent a lot of time and effort to defend those numbers – including ignoring any scientific opinions that did not agree with them – but the truth is that their recovery goals have never been supported by science – not 20 years ago and certainly not today.

In fact, a recent review article comprehensively surveyed the scientific literature on minimum population size requirements and concluded that “thousands (not hundreds) of individuals are required for a population to have an acceptable probability of riding-out environmental fluctuation and catastrophic events, and ensuring the continuation of evolutionary processes. The evidence is clear.”  The authors go on to point out that management plans calling for only a few hundred individuals are “managing inadvertently or implicitly for extinction.” 

The discrepancy between the recovery goals (around 300 individuals) and the current population of wolves (around 1,700) is vast – almost as vast as the opinions on either side of the debate around wolves in the Rocky Mountains.  In fact, it’s a large part of what shapes that debate.   Proponents of removing protection from the wolves are constantly pointing out that the recovery goals have been far surpassed.  And opponents point out that (without endangered species protections), there is no enforceable way to prevent the states from reducing their current populations to the bare minimum.

The recovery goals form the basis of the disagreement over wolf recovery.  And the US Fish and Wildlife Service forms the basis of the recovery goals.  Its time for the Service to reclaim their leadership role in wolf recovery  by reassessing and reasserting not only a legally defensible, but a scientifically defensible recovery plan for wolves.  


Image: Sigmaeye shared via Flickr.

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