North Coast environmental advocates ‘dismayed’ by plan to end gray wolf protections

Species still protected under California Endangered Species Act

A gray wolf stands at the Osborne Nature Wildlife Center south of Elkader, Iowa. U.S. wildlife officials plan to lift protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states. (Dave Kettering — Telegraph Herald)
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By MATTHEW BROWN and JOHN FLESHER

U.S. wildlife officials plan to lift protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, reigniting the legal battle over a predator that’s run into conflicts with farmers and ranchers after rebounding in some regions.

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced the proposal during a Wednesday speech at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Denver, a weeklong conservation forum for researchers, government officials and others, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Spokesman Gavin Shire said in an interview with the Associated Press.

The decision was based on gray wolves successfully recovering from widespread extermination last century, Shire said. Further details were expected during a formal announcement planned in coming days.

Wildlife advocates, including those on the North Coast of California, reacted with outrage and promised to challenge in court any attempt to lift protections. Agriculture groups and lawmakers from Western states are likely to support the administration’s proposal.

“We are obviously disappointed by today’s announcement,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Arcata-based Environmental Protection Information Center. “We have been advocating for wolf protections for many years.”

Northcoast Environmental Center’s Larry Glass offered a similar reaction to Wednesday’s news, saying he was “dismayed but not surprised.”

“It is Trump after all,” said Glass.

Long despised by farmers and ranchers, wolves were shot, trapped and poisoned out of existence in most of the U.S. by the mid-20th century.

They received endangered species protections in 1975, when there were about 1,000 left, only in northern Minnesota. Now more than 5,000 of the animals live in the contiguous U.S.

Most are in the Western Great Lakes and Northern Rockies regions. Protections for the Northern Rockies population were lifted in 2011 and hundreds of wolves are killed annually by hunters in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

State officials and government biologists have said wolves continue to thrive despite pressure from hunting. The animals are prolific breeders and can adapt to a variety of habitats.

But wildlife advocates have fought to keep federal protections kept in place until wolves repopulate more of their historic range that stretched across most of North America.

Since being reintroduced in Yellowstone National park and central Idaho in the mid-1990s, the Northern Rockies population has expanded to parts of Oregon, Washington and California. Wheeler said there are around 11 gray wolves in California.

Wheeler noted that in 2012, EPIC petitioned the state to list the gray wolves under the California Endangered Species Act.

The state Fish and Game Commission “ultimately voted to list gray wolves in June 2014,” he said.

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service has argued for years that gray wolves have recovered in the lower 48 states, despite experts who contend they occupy about 15 percent of the territory they once roamed. Agency officials insist that recovery of wolves everywhere is not required for the species to no longer be in danger of extinction.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials disclosed to the AP last year that another scientific review of the animal’s status had been launched.

Shire declined to disclose the agency’s rationale for determining the species had recovered, but said members of the public would have a chance to comment before a final decision in coming months.

“Recovery of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act is one of our nation’s great conservation successes, with the wolf joining other cherished species, such as the bald eagle, that have been brought back from the brink,” Shire later added in an emailed statement.

Jamie Clark, a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service now with the Defenders of Wildlife group, said endangered species protections were needed to prevent “an all-out war on wolves” in states that would allow hunting.

“We don’t have any confidence that wolves will be managed like other wildlife,” she said. “We’re going to fight this in any way possible.”

Wheeler said EPIC and other environmental groups are considering the path forward after Wednesday’s news.

“Everything is on the table,” he said, including litigation. “We are talking with other sister environmental organizations.”

Glass believes the path forward is better protections for gray wolves at the state level.

“I think right now with the administration we have, looking for whatever we can do in the state of California would seem to be the most fruitful path to follow,” he said.

He also believes there needs to be better enforcement of penalties for killing wolves in the state. He noted that fine is $100,000 but he said he’s unsure that’s enforceable.

“When the wolf that wandered into California from Oregon, you had a bunch of crazy rednecks that were out looking for that wolf,” he said. “The concept I had in mind is, yeah, that fine is on the books, but I would want to make sure the (California Department of Fish and Wildlife) is enforcing it.”

City editor Ruth Schneider contributed to this report. She can be reached at 707-441-0520.

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