Interior Department's decision imperils wolves, Endangered Species Act

A gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park.
A gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park. (National Park Service)
By Jamie Rappaport Clark
Friday, January 1, 2010

"[T]oday, I've signed a memorandum that will help restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act, a process undermined by past administrations. . . . For more than three decades, the Endangered Species Act has successfully protected our nation's most threatened wildlife, and we should be looking for ways to improve it -- not weaken it."

-- President Obama, March 3

I felt distinct relief upon hearing those words. I was at the Interior Department in March when President Obama made this promise to an audience of conservationists on the 160th anniversary of the agency's founding. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was by his side.

After eight years of conservation groups fighting tooth and nail to protect America's imperiled wildlife against the plans and rulings of the Bush administration, it looked as though the Obama administration would renew our commitment to conserving endangered species and biodiversity for future generations.

But this relief was short-lived.

Just three days after the president pledged to strengthen and restore scientific integrity to implementation of the Endangered Species Act, Secretary Salazar removed federal protection from gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. In making this decision, he adopted the plan developed by the Bush administration, relying on a flawed legal opinion crafted by that administration. His decision has undermined the protection of the gray wolf and countless other threatened and endangered species.

This misguided action places wolves squarely in the cross hairs of their opponents across the Northern Rockies, allowing as many as 1,050 of Idaho and Montana's estimated 1,350 wolves to be legally killed and jeopardizing the 30-year recovery effort to restore wild wolves to the region. As a result of Secretary Salazar's action, wolves in the Northern Rockies are being hunted prematurely. Already, 210 have been killed, and there are still three months left in the Idaho hunting season.

I work with an organization that is among the 13 conservation groups that have taken this issue to court. In September, a federal judge indicated our case is likely to succeed on its merits, although a final ruling will not come until later this year.

As a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I find it hard to understand why the Obama administration made this decision and why it justified it by relying on a legal opinion that has been criticized by a range of people, including academics and members of Congress. Worse, this decision affects more than the Northern Rockies wolf population. It also sets an alarming precedent for future listing and delisting decisions.

The Bush administration's legal opinion overturned more than 30 years of interpretation of the Endangered Species Act. By this reasoning, protection of species can now be determined by political boundaries and manipulation, not biology. Adjusting populations in this unscientific way -- carving out areas along state lines, as Salazar did in exempting Wyoming from the areas in which wolves were no longer to be considered endangered -- makes the act subject to political manipulation. This legal sleight of hand is in direct contrast to Obama's pledge to restore scientific integrity to decisions about endangered-species conservation.

Salazar should not have allowed the gray wolf to be delisted without first engaging in a clear and transparent public process and without exploring the ramifications of relying on this flawed legal opinion. Defenders of Wildlife reached out several times to work with the Interior Department to craft a plan that would ensure continued wolf recovery while returning management of wolves to state fish and wildlife agencies. Our efforts were ignored.

Because of my intimate involvement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, I was very much looking forward to the day when the wolf population would no longer need federal protections. But wolves and endangered-species conservation now face an uncertain future. If the president's pledge to restore scientific integrity to the Endangered Species Act, and to improve the law, is to be fulfilled, action must be taken immediately. The interior secretary should withdraw the flawed legal opinion on which his delisting relied, restore federal protection to gray wolves in the Northern Rockies and engage all stakeholders in developing a plan to ensure that one of our nation's greatest conservation successes, the restoration of gray wolves to Yellowstone and the Northern Rockies, will not be lost.

The writer is executive vice president for Defenders of Wildlife, which has worked on wolf conservation for more than three decades. She directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997 to 2001.

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