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An end to Federal protection of wolves

The New York Times is reporting that wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have lost federal protection.

“Wolves are back,” said Lynn Scarlett, the deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, in a telephone conference call with reporters. “Gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains are thriving and no longer need protection.”

The 66 wolves that were introduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in the mid 1990s has now expanded to an estimated population of 1300. Another 230 wolves live in Montana, which they settled on their own. What’s really shocking is the target population sizes

State management plans allow for wolf hunting, or outright eradication in some places — including most of Wyoming — with a target population of 150 in each of the three states.

That few? That really doesn’t strike me as a viable population size either in genetic terms, although I am not an expert on minimal viable population sizes in wolves. The Times reports that

Biologists cited by the environmental and wildlife groups say that target population is too small, and suggest instead that 2,000 to 3,000 animals are the minimum needed.

The Fish and Wildlife Service appears to disagree

“Wolves are resilient, and their social structure is resilient,” said Ed Bangs, the gray wolf recovery coordinator for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. Mr. Bangs said that even with federal protections in place almost one in four wolves die each year, either naturally or from human action, and yet the population has still been rising at a rate of about 24 percent a year.

But talking about minimum viable populations misses the point. The reason to have wolves isn’t to protect the species from extinction – as long as there are healthy populations in Canada, this subspecies isn’t at risk of extinction. The ecosystem needs its top predators. In Yellowstone they have had a profound effect on the landscape. Aspen stopped regenerating in Yellowstone around 19201 but the reintroduction of wolves has allowed aspen, willows and cottonwood to regenerate in riparian areas2.  Healthy wolf populations is likely to mean a healthier ecosystem overall.

  1. Ripple,W.J., Larsen, E.J., 2000. Historic aspen recruitment, elk, and wolves in northern Yellowstone National Park, USA. Biological Conservation 95, 361–370.
  2. Ripple, W.J., Beschta, R.L., Restoring Yellowstone’s aspen with wolves, Biological Conservation (2007), doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2007.05.006
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