close up of gray wolf

An animal’s removal from the endangered species list should be a cause for celebration and a sign that the species no longer requires help from the federal government. When this happened with the bald eagle, conservationists and lawmakers alike were thrilled.

Unfortunately, a proposal from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the gray wolf from the endangered list is being greeted with dismay, not delight. If the proposal passes, protections for wolves will be removed in the lower 48 states, with the exception of the Mexican wolf subspecies. The FWS praised the wolf as a recovery success story, but its proposal has been met with criticism from many in the scientific and wildlife communities. This criticism has increased since the independent scientific peer review of the proposal was suspended after the service asked for the removal of three scientists; it turns out the three, whose identities were supposed to remain anonymous, once signed a letter objecting to the plan.

The FWS would not comment on either that request or the proposal itself, but Suzanne Stone, northern Rockies representative and western wolf conservationist for Defenders of Wildlife, is not surprised by how hard the Fish and Wildlife Service is working to delist gray wolves.

“Unfortunately, the service has been doing pretty much everything it can for close to a decade to absolve itself of responsibilities for wolves since it’s been a controversial issue," Stone says. "It can be a headache and a P.R. problem to have to work at restoring wolves. They clearly want to get rid of their responsibility to the wolf issue as quickly as possible.”

Conflict Between Wolves and Humans

Stone has been working on wolf conservation for almost 25 years, concentrating on managing conflicts between wolves and humans. She has spent a lot of time working with ranchers to develop strategies to help them live in harmony with the wolves, such as using nonlethal deterrents to stop wolf predation of livestock.

“I try to help build acceptance and tolerance toward wolves and lessen the impact wolves are having on the ranching community,” she says.

Pressure from communities that clash with wolves, like ranchers, may be a big factor motivating the service to remove wolf protections. Stone says the FWS is missing a great opportunity to demonstrate leadership in resolving such conflicts.

two gray wolves outdoors

“Humans destroyed wolves, not loss of habitat. Animosity toward the species is the reason wolves were listed as endangered to begin with,” Stone says. “The service is supposed to be the true leader in the country in terms of species recovery. They are the line of defense for species like wolves. If wolves don’t have the service to count on in the federal government, they really have nothing else. So it’s a real disappointment.”

Has the Gray Wolf Really Recovered?

Maggie Howell, executive director of the Wolf Conservation Center, also wasn’t surprised by the proposal, having heard rumblings about it in the wolf community. Howell had also watched as protections for wolves were removed in certain states over the years, including Montana and Idaho.

Howell, who has spent the last 13 years working with wolves, believes the proposal is premature and thinks the fact that there has been such an outcry against it should give the service pause.

“In the Endangered Species Act, it says animals must be protected until a significant portion of their historic range is recovered, and 5 percent [for wolves] doesn’t seem significant to me. There are areas that are just recovering,” she argues.

Stone also thinks wolves have not recovered enough to be removed from the list. The western U.S. was once a stronghold for wolves before they were eradicated in the area by the 1930s, and while they have returned to their habitat in the northern Rockies, they haven’t returned elsewhere.

“Colorado has more habitat to support a bigger wolf population than any other state and needs wolves because of problems with out-of-control elk and deer populations, which are causing disease,” Stone says. “So the service is claiming a victory that the wolf has recovered, but the most important habitat for wolves in the western U.S. [Colorado] doesn’t have a single wolf in it.”

Both Stone and Howell worry that if protections are removed, wolf populations will never have the chance to fully recover, since people will be allowed to kill wolves in many states.

“Since we saw wolf protection lifted in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, we’ve lost over a thousand wolves to hunting in a region that had fewer than 2,000 to begin with,” Stone says. “If this continues, we will see a serious decline in population in the next decade.”

The delisting of the wolf would also set a precedent for any other species that becomes controversial. According to Stone, removing the wolf would show people they could do the same with other problematic or controversial endangered animals.

How You Can Get Involved

The FWS has extended the public comment period until October 28, which means there is still time for you to speak up about the proposal. You can also contact your members of Congress and local FWS representative to lodge a complaint. Finally, a fourth public hearing (in addition to the three that took place at the beginning of October) may also be announced and would be a great place to make your voice heard, according to Stone.

“If you care about wolves, this is the time to vocally and publically share your concern,” Stone says. “Wolves should someday be delisted and no longer be endangered, but that’s once they cross the threshold of being recovered, not just because someone wants them removed.”

Read more Vetstreet articles about conservation.