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The Political Debate

Extreme measures & malicious misinformation

“Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”

– President Richard Nixon, upon signing the Endangered Species Act on December 28, 1973.


Gray wolves were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1974, paving the way for their reintroduction to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995. Since their reintroduction, the question of the presence of wolves in the American West has been the subject of an ongoing battle, a tug-of-war of between science and politics.

For forty years, science has guided the ESA and its legacy of conservation. But today, politics is threatening to derail science, and take its place in guiding the process of gray wolf recovery. Although gray wolves only inhabit 15% of their former range, and have not yet returned to all the places they used to live, their federal protections might be lifted across the nation. 

The Political Debate

In 1973, a federal law was enacted to protect endangered and threatened plants and animals, as well as the habitats in which they live. The development of this law, known as the Endangered Species Act (ESA), was guided by an ethic new to conservation at the time, that healthy landscapes depend upon the presence of native plants and animals.

In addition to providing protection from extinction, the ESA also mandated that species nearly eliminated be restored to their historic lands. This opened up the possibility of reintroducing animals lost from the American landscape as a result of human activity, like the gray wolf.

In 1974, Congress listed the gray wolf as endangered under the ESA. However, it wasn’t until two decades later that wolves were finally restored to their former habitat in the American West. In 1995 and again in 1996, gray wolves were captured in Canada and relocated to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

Since reintroduction, wolves have dispersed throughout the region, returning to ecosystems that had long suffered in their absence. They are currently found in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon and Northern California. Still, they have not yet been reestablished in the wild areas of their former range: Colorado, Utah, Nevada and large portions of other Western states where the wolf population stands at zero.

Historically, species have been “delisted” (or removed) from the list of endangered species once they’ve made a broad-scale recovery throughout their historical range. Delisting has been based on carefully made, evidence-based decisions. Not so for the wolf. In spring of 2011, Congress removed Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for wolves in Idaho and Montana with an 11th hour Congressional rider attached to the federal budget bill… a must-pass measure that had nothing to do with wolves. In the face of a government shutdown, the delisting of wolves was never discussed, as the budget bill was fast tracked. Politics derailed science, the legal process outlined by the ESA was ignored, and now almost all wolves have been delisted nearly everywhere they live, with no scientific or legal justification.

In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing federal protections for gray wolves (Canis lupus) throughout their historic range in the lower 48 states. Since wolves have not yet returned to all of their historic range, they face a premature ending to a recovery far from complete. The law clearly states that these decisions must be based on “the best available science,” so an independent peer review was enlisted to evaluate the scientific integrity of the proposed delisting rule. That peer review unanimously found that the rule was not based on the best available science. The ruling, however, was not rescinded. The final decision as to whether or not this proposal will become law is still pending.

Gray wolves are currently only protected by the federal ESA in Oregon and Washington’s Cascade Mountains (where 2-4 packs currently live), in Wyoming, the Great Lakes region, and for the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf in Arizona and New Mexico. Federal ESA protections were reinstated for wolves in Wyoming in September 2014 by U.S. District Court’s Judge Amy Berman Jackson’s ruling which found that the state of Wyoming’s wolf management plan was flawed and irresponsible, treating wolves as “vermin” to be killed-on-sight year round without limit or need for a license in 83% of the state. Federal ESA protections for gray wolves were similarly reinstated in the Great Lakes region (including Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan) in December of 2014 by U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell who ruled that the U.S. FWS decision that prematurely removed ESA protections for gray wolves in the region in 2102 was “arbitrary and capricious” and violated the ESA. Representatives from Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, in response to these Federal court decisions, introduced bills to legislatively remove ESA protections for gray wolves in Wyoming and in the Western Great Lakes region and to make wolves in these places permanently ineligible for protection under the ESA.

The gray wolf was brought back by the mandate of the ESA, with our federal tax dollars. They live on federal lands, land that belongs to us all. We all have a say in the future and well-being of this animal and an obligation to guarantee its safety. Wolves need your support, learn how you can help and who to contact.