Gray wolves (Canis lupus) living in the U.S. Great Lakes region no longer need the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), argue 26 scientists and wildlife managers in a letter sent this week to top federal officials. But other researchers are taking a decidedly different view.
The 18 November letter, sent to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), is intended to support the federal government’s position that wolves in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan are fully recovered and that states should now manage the species.
“Wolf recovery in these states is a great success story,” says L. David Mech, the letter’s first signer and a wolf biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul. As of 2014, biologists estimate that more than 3700 wolves were residing in the Great Lakes region, surpassing FWS’s original recovery target of 300, set in 1992.
“The Great Lakes’ wolf populations have biologically recovered and no longer need to be managed as endangered,” says Adrian Wydeven, a retired state wildlife biologist in Ashland, Wisconsin, who helped draft the letter. There isn’t any “scientific evidence” that state agencies would mismanage the animals, or disrupt their dispersal into other states, Wydeven and his colleagues say.
That’s the contention of FWS, too, which has made several attempts to take the Great Lakes’ wolves off the endangered species list, most recently in 2011. But the agency had to reinstate the canids in 2014, after a federal district court judge ruled that the decision to remove them was premature and threatened their survival. That ruling is being appealed.
The new letter was written partly in response to another letter released earlier this year, signed by 50 researchers, which opposed changing the wolves’ endangered status. “We thought it was important to show that there are scientists who support the delisting,” Wydeven told ScienceInsider.
The earlier letter, sent this past February to members of Congress, argued that gray wolves are far from recovered because they have fully returned to only a small portion of their former range—the Great Lakes states and the northern Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. Prior to the 20th century, the canids inhabited most of the contiguous 48 states. Without federal protections, wolf expansion into the original range won’t happen, opponents of delisting say.
Since the judge’s ruling, scientists and conservationists have worried that Congress might step in and remove protections for the Great Lakes’ wolves and those in Wyoming—as it did in 2011, when it downlisted the canids in several western states. Indeed, this past week senators Ron Johnson (R–WI) and John Barrasso (R–WY) introduced legislation to circumvent the ESA and delist the wolf populations in Wyoming and the Great Lakes region.
Mech says that this sign of political frustration isn’t surprising. “When an animal is recovered and it’s not delisted, [that] impugns the ESA,” he says, “and it gives ammo to those who dislike the act.” The Great Lakes wolves, he adds, met FWS’s recovery criteria in 1999. And he warns that continuing to list the species will only “make people hate [wolves] as they did in the past.”
John Vucetich, a wildlife ecologist at Michigan Technological University in Houghton and a signer of the February letter, sees things differently. “The problem is that the recovery criteria don’t meet the standards of the ESA,” he says. And “if wolves are threatened by peoples’ hatred, then the ESA requires this threat to be mitigated.” He predicts that if the wolves are taken off the federal list, “every one of these states will have a wolf hunting season, ending any further expansion of the gray wolf.”