Gray Wolf Panel Slams Government Plan; Proposal Doesn't Use 'Best Available Science' In Decision To Remove Wolf Protections

By Josh Lieberman on February 7, 2014 4:21 PM EST

gray wolf
The gray wolf should continue to received protection under the Endangered Species Act, an independent panel concluded in a report today. The federal government is pushing to delist the wolf. (Photo: Reuters)

Just days after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed dropping an Oregon minnow from the endangered species list, a more controversial delisting has hit a major snag. An independent, five-person review panel has unanimously agreed that the federal government should not remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list, as the government's proposal was based on faulty science. The panel's report [pdf] was released today.

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In June 2013, the Obama administration proposed removing protections for gray wolves living in the contiguous United States (except for one pocket in the Southwest). The plan hinged on the idea that the wolf species found in the Northeast and Midwest was a gray wolf subspecies, the eastern wolf (Canis lycaon). If the eastern wolf was the species found in those areas, instead of the gray wolf, than gray wolf recovery efforts wouldn't apply there. The panel found that the government's eastern wolf claim was unsubstantiated. 

"The process was clean and the results were unequivocal," said panel member Steven Courtney, a scientist at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California in Santa Barbara. "The science used by the [USFWS] concerning genetics and taxonomy of wolves was preliminary and currently not the best available science."

Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director at the  activist organization Center for Biological Diversity, was appalled by the government's attempt to remove gray wolf protections. "The Service's attempt to justify this decision on dubious science does not mask the fact that wolves occupy just a small fraction of their former range in the United States," Greenwald said. "And in the few places where wolves have returned, they face levels of persecution not seen since the early 1900s that have resulted in the deaths of more than 2,600 wolves since 2011." He added that wolf recovery is "far from complete."

Chris Tollefson, a spokesman for USFWS, said that the organization takes "the comments from peer reviewers very seriously and we need to take those into account." With the panel's findings, the proposal will undergo another public comment period.  

Wolves have been on the endangered species list since 1975, after they were almost completely wiped out in the contiguous U.S. by trapping and poisoning programs sponsored by the government. There are now about 5,000 gray wolves in the mainland U.S. and between 7,000 to 11,200 in Alaska.  

The delisting plan, which was announced in June of last year, has been controversial from the start. The proposal was based on a single publication which the scientific community did not widely accept. In May, before the plan was officially announced, 16 scientists wrote [pdf] to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in protest of the proposal. "Based on a careful review of the rule," they wrote, "we do not believe that the rule reflects the conclusions of our work or the best available science concerning the recovery of wolves, or is in accordance with the fundamental purpose of the Endangered Species Act to conserve endangered species and the ecosystems upon which they depend."

In August, the New York Times editorial board bluntly called the proposed delisting "politics masquerading as science." With today's unanimous ruling, the independent panel seemed to agree. 

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