Cat Urbigkit: FWS Pushes Wolf Recovery Plan Even Though They Know They Aren't Endangered

Columnist Cat Urbigkit writes: The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on Friday said listing gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act is not warranted. But, to soften the blow for its wolf advocate friends, will undertake a national wolf recovery plan for wolves anyway.

Cat Urbigkit

February 03, 202411 min read

Cat urbigkit cropped scaled
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Let’s tackle the good news first: The three petitions filed by an assortment of wolf advocacy groups seeking federal protection for wolves throughout the western states were soundly rejected by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS). The agency’s 300-plus page “species status assessment” was well done, using science to reject claims that wolves are threatened with extinction due to lethal control by humans, among other potential threats.

The petitions to relist wolves were filed by publicly-seeking wolf advocates who continue to wail that “wolves need our help” while fundraising off the exaggerations they peddle.

They are angry that both Idaho and Montana expanded wolf hunting opportunities with the stated goal of reducing their wolf populations, while ignoring that each of these states have far more wolves than is legally required for wolf recovery targets and each state is legally mandated to keep their wolf populations above a level that would put the species into jeopardy.

Because the wolf advocates oppose states allowing wolf hunting and killing, they sought federal protection once again, alleging that wolves are endangered by state management.

Thankfully, the feds didn’t buy that argument. The status assessment walked through the arguments and determined, “After assessing the best available data, we concluded that the gray wolf in the Western United States is not in danger of extinction, or likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future, throughout all of its range or in any significant portion of its range.”

The Science

The Wyoming Game & Fish Department’s management of wolves comes out of the FWS science review smelling like a rose.

Despite its much smaller wolf population than Idaho or Montana, WG&F’s conservative wolf harvest in northwestern Wyoming’s wolf hunting area continues to strike the balance between keeping enough wolves to satisfy FWS that the animals don’t need federal protection and keeping livestock losses low.

The result of Wyoming’s wolf management lends support to the notion that wolf hunting helps to reduce livestock losses, or as FWS put it in citing Wyoming as an example, “There is some evidence that the combination of targeted lethal control of depredating wolves and regulated harvest of wolves has the potential to reduce wolf-livestock conflicts without having a significant impact on wolf abundance.”

Despite all the noise about how states are killing wolves to satisfy livestock producers, FWS reported that the number of wolves removed in response to livestock depredations was higher under FWS management than under state management.

The agency noted, “Since 2017, when Federal protections were most recently removed for wolves in Wyoming, and as wolf abundance with the (Wyoming’s wolf trophy game area) has approached and been managed at the objective of 160 wolves, the total number of wolves and the percentage of the population lethally removed to resolve livestock conflicts has trended downward.”

In addition, “damage compensation payments for wolf-caused livestock losses have declined,” FWS reported.

Well done, Wyoming Game & Fish.

FWS made some other statements about lethal control of wolves that won’t please wolf advocates.

FWS noted lethal control of depredating wolves is not harming the western wolf population: “While lethal control can result in disruption of packs, or even the removal of entire packs, overall, the level of lethal removal in response to livestock depredations across the wolf’s range in the Western United States has not prevented the growth and expansion of wolf populations.”

The agency noted, “lethal control may also improve the overall effectiveness of nonlethal methods because wolves may then associate humans with an increased risk of injury or death.”

The agency continued, “If wildlife managers use lethal control to reduce pack size shortly after a depredation occurred, it has been effective at minimizing recurrent depredations at the local scale; for example, the targeted removal of at least one adult male wolf from depredating packs and the targeted removal of a high number of individuals relative to pack size significantly reduced the probability of recurrent cattle depredations the following year” and “complete pack removal can be more effective than removal of a few pack members.”

While wolf advocates claim that lethal control of wolves should not be used because it is too costly and lacking long-term effectiveness, FWS counters those claims by noting “lethal control of depredating wolves is not intended to resolve long-term depredation management issues across a large spatial scale” but instead is used as “a short-term response on a relatively small scale to mitigate recurrent depredations of livestock that could not be resolved using other methods.”

Although there was much angst from some quarters over the number of wolves that inhabit Yellowstone National Park part of the year being killed in Montana’s 2021-2022 wolf hunt, FWS reports that the park’s wolf population remained stable, retaining a population size of about 100 wolves since 2008.

FWS suggests this is population stability is reflective of the “combined effect of reduced elk abundance, canine distemper virus, and mange likely contributed to wolf populations declining to a lower long-term average” of around 100 wolves.

We Lost, So Send More Emails & Money

The three petitions were filed by: Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society of the United States, Humane Society Legislative Fund, and the Sierra Club; Western Watersheds Project and 70 other organizations; and

International Wildlife Coexistence Network, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, Endangered Species Coalition, Wyoming Untrapped, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, 06 Legacy, Center for a Humane Economy, and Rick Lamplugh LLC,  Nathan Varley, owner of the Yellowstone Tracker.

Despite FWS rejecting the petitions as unfounded and not based on science, the Relist Wolves campaign (the umbrella campaign for most of the groups who filed the petitions) is continuing its push for federal protection for wolves throughout the United States, posting on its website, “The gray wolf is still in grave danger. If we don’t ACT IMMEDIATELY we could lose them for good.”

The site urges wolf advocates to sign a new letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland reminding her: “When you took office you made a promise to the American public: ‘I am committed to ensuring that wolves have the conservation they need to survive and thrive in the wild’ …. Why then, in the nearly 3 years under the leadership of you and Director Martha Williams, have you continually broken this promise? … You may be silent, but we refuse to sit by any longer. Keep your promises. Don’t silence the howl forever.”

The website provides handy “Take Action” buttons such as asking children to download and send a postcard to President Biden saying “Please save our wolves! Stop hunters from hurting them. Put them back on the endangered species list!”

For people living outside of the United States, there is a button to submit emails urging President Biden and other government officials to reverse the FWS decision, arguing “the Federal Government continues to side with those who only wish to eradicate wolves.”

The same day the FWS decision denied the petitions, Wyoming Wildlife Advocates urged its followers to “Send a life saving gift here” by pushing its donation button.

Recovery Plan

Now for the bad news: In the paragraph prior to announcing that the best available science does not support an ESA listing for wolves in the western states, FWS proclaimed “Recognizing that the national discussion around gray wolf management must look more comprehensively at conservation tools available to federal, state and Tribal governments, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced a path to support a long term and durable approach to the conservation of gray wolves, to include a process to develop – for the first time – a National Recovery Plan under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) for gray wolves in the lower 48 states.”

The press release cited the legal wrangling that has gone on over wolves in the last two decades, but rather than chide wolf advocates for wasting public money and effort on a species that isn’t biologically endangered, FWS announced it will use public money to develop a recovery plan for a species that is not endangered.

FWS’s own documents released the same day note not just that the western wolf population is not endangered nor threatened, but reports, “Worldwide, gray wolves are listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as a species of Least Concern with a circumpolar distribution and global population on the order of 200,000 to 250,000 individuals.”

The FWS press release took a potshot at state wolf managers in Montana and Idaho, stating: “The states of Montana and Idaho recently adopted laws and regulations designed to substantially reduce the gray wolf populations in their states using means and measures that are at odds with modern professional wildlife management.”

Yet the FWS’s own documents detailed the case that Montana and Idaho provide adequate mechanisms and authority to keep a sustainable population of wolves on the landscape, so FWS veered pretty far out of its lane in its press release.

In the end, federal resources – funded by American taxpayers – will continue to be funneled toward a charismatic large carnivore that generates donations for “conservation” groups but isn’t truly in danger.

What a waste. What a shame. Is it any wonder that Congress wants to reform the Endangered Species Act, when this is how it is used?

Five Things to Know:

  1. FWS determined that listing gray wolves in the Northern Rockies and in the western U.S. under the Endangered Species Act is not warranted.
  2. FWS also determined that the Northern Rockies population is no longer a distinct population under the Endangered Species Act but is now part of a larger “Western megapopulation.” At the end of 2022, there were at least 2,797 wolves distributed among at least 286 packs in 7 western states.
  3. The decision doesn’t change the legal status of wolves anywhere. Wolves are still federally protected in much of the Lower 48 states, (excluding Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, northern Utah, and the eastern portions of Washington and Oregon). Although FWS removed federal protection for gray wolves in the Lower 48 back in 2021, a Northern California federal court overturned FWS’s delisting in early 2022, so wolves remain federally protected in most states across the country (with the exception of the Northern Rockies).
  4. In what appears to be an effort to soften the blow to its wolf advocate friends, FWS concurrently announced it will now undertake a national wolf recovery plan for wolves in the Lower 48 states, due by the end of 2025.
  5. In launching a national recovery plan for gray wolves, FWS ignores its own finding that “After assessing the best available data, we concluded that the gray wolf in the Western United States is not in danger of extinction, or likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future, throughout all of its range or in any significant portion of its range.”

WYO Wolf Hunt

The current gray wolf hunting season in northwestern Wyoming has been open since Sept. 15th, and so far hunters have killed 28 wolves – of the total quota of 40.

The only hunt area remaining open at this time is area 13 along the Dubois Front. That area will close when one more wolf is taken from the area (of the total quota of three), or March 31, whichever comes first. The extended season in this area is designed to ease pressure on the local ailing bighorn sheep population.

That hardly fits with the narrative that Wyoming is “slaughtering” as we seek “eradication.” But I get it: it’s the manufactured drama that gets folks to press that donation button.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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Cat Urbigkit

Public Lands and Wildlife Columnist