Federal wolf delisting proposal found to lack scientific basis

Gray wolf. Credit: Gary Kramer / USFWS

Gray wolf. Credit: Gary Kramer / USFWS

In the ongoing collision of science with wolf protection politics, an independent expert review panel has concluded that the Obama administration’s proposal to remove endangered species protection nationwide for the gray wolf lacks a sound scientific basis. Until wolf recovery is complete and gray wolves have reoccupied the historic range in which they had earlier been decimated, they need protection from ranchers, farmers, and hunters. Back to the drawing board for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for administering the Endangered Species Act, had requested the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California – Santa Barbara to carry out an independent scientific peer review of the agency’s proposal to list the Mexican wolf as an endangered subspecies and remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List.

The Washington Post reports (“Federal wolf plan used unproven science, panel says”)

BILLINGS, Mont. — A proposal to lift federal protections for gray wolves across most of the United States suffered a significant setback Friday as an independent review panel said the government is relying on unsettled science to make its case. …

Wolves were added to the endangered species list in 1975 after being exterminated last century across most of the United States under government-sponsored trapping and poisoning programs.

Hunting for wolves already is allowed for roughly 5,000 wolves in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes, where protections were lifted in 2011. More than 900 of the animals have been shot or caught by trappers in the two regions during this winter’s hunting season. …

The Fish and Wildlife Service already faced fervent opposition to its plan from some scientists, wildlife advocates and members of Congress. They’ve argued that protections should remain in place given that vast areas of potentially suitable wolf habitat remain unoccupied in the southern Rocky Mountains, along the West Coast and in the Northeast. …

But feelings run strong on both sides of the issue. Many Republican lawmakers, agricultural interests and hunting groups have pushed equally hard for jurisdiction over wolves to be passed to states so they could manage the population through annual harvests. …

From a statement by the Center for Biological Diversity (“Top Wolf Scientists Unanimous: Science Doesn’t Support Plan to Strip Protections”):

“The nation’s top wolf scientists today confirmed what we and millions of American’s have been saying for months: The job of wolf recovery is far from complete,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This peer review is a major blow to the Obama administration’s highly political effort to prematurely remove protections for wolves.”

Peer reviewers were particularly critical of the Service’s determination that the gray wolf never occurred in 29 eastern states, but rather that a different species of wolf known as the “eastern wolf” occurred there. This determination forms a primary basis for removing protections.

“The Service’s attempt to justify this decision on dubious science does not mask the fact that wolves occupy just a small fraction of their former range in the United States,” said Greenwald. “And in the few places where wolves have returned, they face levels of persecution not seen since the early 1900s that have resulted in the deaths of more than 2,600 wolves since 2011.” …

At Care2 (“Will a New Report Help Keep Wolves Protected?”):

Concerns continue to be raised about what will happen to these iconic predators if they are prematurely stripped of federal protection. Thousands have already been brutally slaughtered by hunters and trappers since they lost protection in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes after management authority was turned over to states that are blatantly hostile to them. If wolves are delisted in the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rocky Mountains and the Northeast they will be left facing even worse odds than they already are and may never establish new territories, which is critical to their successful recovery.

From WildEarth Guardians (“Independent Peer Review Concludes Wolf Delisting Proposal Does Not Represent the Best Available Science”):

The Endangered Species Act requires that listing and delisting decisions be made only on the basis of the best available science. Moreover, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe have repeatedly asserted the Service will base decisions on the status of wolves on the best available science.

“We are calling on Secretary Jewell and Director Ashe to keep their promise to follow the best available science,” said Bethany Cotton, wildlife program director of WildEarth Guardians. “The independent peer review is clear: the Service did not do so. The only thing left is for the Service to rescind the fatally flawed proposed rule.”

The independent panel’s report has prompted the Fish and Wildlife Service to re-open their proposed wolf delisting decision for another round of public comment, which will extend until March 27.

“Peer review is an important step in our efforts to assure that the final decision on our proposal to delist the wolf is based on the best available scientific and technical information,” said FWS Director Dan Ashe. “We thank the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis for conducting a transparent, objective and well-documented process.”

The peer review report is available online, along with instructions on how to provide comment and comprehensive links relating to the proposal, at www.fws.gov/home/wolfrecovery.

Earlier posts:

Proposed ending of federal gray wolf protection: Another case of setting science aside? (June 9, 2013)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to remove the gray wolf from Endangered Species Act protection raises questions about the trade-offs between science-based decisionmaking and political pressure. A group of 16 leading wolf research scientists has raised serious questions about the scientific basis of the proposal to ‘de-list’ the wolf. This in turn raises the question of whether the Obama administration is once again setting science aside when its message is politically inconvenient.

Top wolf science expert critics purged from Fish & Wildlife Service peer review panel (August 12, 2013)

In a direct affront to scientific integrity in policymaking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has purged three of the nation’s top wolf experts from a scientific peer review of the agency’s plan to remove federal protections from the gray wolf . The three were barred because they had signed a letter with 13 other scientists expressing concern about the scientific basis for the federal plan, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

Political “optics” problem for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts proposed removal of wolf protection on hold (August 12, 2013)

Apparently abandoning its attempt to purge key wolf experts from a scientific peer review of a proposal to remove protections from gray wolves, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman acknowledged that the “optics of the situation” were a problem for the agency. In Washington, DC, parlance, you have an optics problem when it appears there is something wrong with what you’re doing.

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