Late last week, a draft government rule that will remove Endangered Species Act protections for wolves across most of the lower 48 states was leaked to the press.
If it's enacted, this rule will put a tragic end to one of the most important wildlife recovery stories in America's history.
Wolves today wander just 5 percent of their historic habitat in the continental United States. It's simply far too early to declare victory. Pulling the plug on the wolf recovery program now will virtually guarantee that wolf populations will stagnate and these beautiful animals will never again roam prime wolf habitat in places like the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rocky Mountains or the Northeast.
In all of these areas, there are vast tracts of land that scientists have determined have the space and prey to support healthy wolf populations.
All that's required of us is a little tolerance and a little imagination -- and the willingness to follow through on our decades-long commitment to these incredible creatures.
There were once about two million wolves in North America. Most were wiped out in the late 1800s and early 1900s as European settlements moved west and government-sponsored extermination programs were used to protect cows and sheep placed on landscapes occupied by wolves for tens of thousands of years.
With the passing of the Endangered Species Act under President Nixon, and a more enlightened view of the vital ecosystem role played by predators, we shored up and encouraged wolf populations in the Great Lakes region, launched a successful reintroduction in the northern Rockies and, far less successfully, brought Mexican gray wolves back to parts of Arizona and New Mexico.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in its latest proposal, says that's good enough for wolf recovery. Its new plan would remove federal protections for all wolves in the lower 48 states except those in the Southwest (which undeniably and desperately need protection since there are just 75 or so -- and a scant three breeding pairs -- in the wild).
Following removal of protections for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains and western Great Lakes in 2011, states in these regions enacted aggressive hunting and trapping seasons that are designed to drastically reduce wolf populations. In the northern Rocky Mountains, more than 1,100 wolves have been killed since protections were removed and this year populations declined by 7 percent.
It's clear that states are going to let old prejudices against wolves drive their management, and we can't rely on them to let wolves move into new areas. That's why it's crucial that wolves continue to get the help that only the federal Endangered Species Act can give them.
Wolves belong in our mountains and forests and valleys and plains. They sustain a critical natural balance in those places, whether it's keeping deer and coyote populations in check or keeping elk and other prey species on the move so they don't devour and trample streamsides that songbirds and beavers need to survive. Wolves have an important role to play. We have to let them play it.
No, wolves will never be as abundant as they once were across North America, and nobody expects that. But restoring them to just 5 percent of where they once lived, then calling it quits and hunting them down again by the thousands? That's just wrong.