Twenty Years Later

Twenty years ago this week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists released eight gray wolves into the wilds of Yellowstone National Park, restoring the top predator to the park’s landscape after a 30-year hiatus. Before the year’s end, a female from the Rose Creek pack and a male from the Crystal Creek pack joined up to create the first free-forming pack of wolves observed in Yellowstone in half a century. Biologists named it the Leopold pack, after the conservation pioneer, Aldo Leopold. A second release of wolves into Yellowstone and central Idaho soon followed. Now, two decades later, at least 1,700 wolves roam the Northern Rockies in more than 300 packs. They are hunting, denning and breeding just as they had for thousands of years preceding their extirpation.

wolfphtoThe remarkable comeback of the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies is not only a grand success story of the Endangered Species Act, but undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements in the history of American wildlife restoration. Hundreds of Americans and westerners of all stripes came together to help make room for wolves in the West, including ranchers, conservationists, hunters, wildlife managers, Native Americans and even politicians from both sides of the aisle.

The restoration of wolves has produced a ripple effect of ecological benefits that would have delighted Leopold. In some areas in and around Yellowstone, over-browsed vegetation has been able to recover and regenerate as wolves have thinned and distributed highly-concentrated elk herds. And since wolves tend to prey upon weaker animals, elk herd health is strengthened in the process. (Biologists in Yellowstone have even reported that elk in the park are becoming larger and tougher now that they have another predator to contend with.) Elsewhere in the region, antelope fawn survival has increased as wolves have reduced over-abundant populations of coyotes—the main predator of antelope fawns.

While many in the livestock industry protest about the toll wolves take on cattle and sheep, in fact, livestock mortality due to wolves is relatively small and pales in comparison to livestock losses attributable to other causes. And livestock depredation by wolves can be significantly reduced with appropriate livestock management practices, such as using guard dogs, shepherds and range riders.

Similarly, some hunters have complained that wolves are decimating populations of elk around the region, but that is also an exaggeration. While a few elk herds have declined (for many reasons, including climate change, habitat loss and over-hunting—in addition to wolf predation), many elk herds are faring quite well in the presence of wolves. According to state wildlife agency data, there are actually more elk, overall, in the Northern Rockies than there were at the time of wolf reintroduction. And elk hunting success rates have remained high, especially for those hunters who are willing to walk.

As much as wolves are simple, wild animals trying to eke out a living, they are also hugely symbolic. For those of us who appreciate them, wolves are a symbol of wild places. And for those who despise them, wolves represent, in part, the federal government that returned them to the West. But I believe that the next generation of westerners will grow up accepting that wolves are simply one piece of whole suite of native wildlife in the Northern Rockies – not some mythical monster foisted upon the region. As I reflect upon the historic wildlife restoration event that was kickstarted two decades ago, I cannot help but wonder where we will be with wolves two decades hence. Will some of the seemingly intractable wolf management battles that currently plague western policy debate subside? I hope so.



Federal Court to USFWS: Relist Great Lakes Wolves

Breaking news from ESC member group Humane Society of the United States:

Sport hunting and trapping of wolves in the Great Lakes region must end immediately, a federal District Court has ruled. The court overturned a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision that removed Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves living in the western Great Lakes region, which includes Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.  

We have written previously about the urgent need for USFWS to again protect wolves in Wisconsin due to aggressive and unsustainable hunting and trapping,  and congratulate and thank HSUS, Born Free USA, Help Our Wolves Live and Friends of Animals and Their Environment for taking the lead and holding USFWS accountable on WGL wolf protection through the courts.

Read the release in its entirety here.

Congress Making California Drought Worse Through Legislation

By Dr. C. Mark Rockwell
California State Representative
Endangered Species Coalition

The severe drought afflicting much of the West is being used as a smokescreen by some in Congress to undermine critical environmental and wildlife laws including the Endangered Species Act. This past summer and spring, the House of Representatives and Senate passed bills designed to help affected communities with drought relief. Since then, they have not be able to find common ground.

drying landAs you read this, closed-door negotiations are going on in Congress to push through a bill that could be full of bad policy, and long term harm to environmental laws that most Americans support. It appears that the Endangered Species Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and possibly the Clean Water Act are all on the target list, at least from information leaking out of these closed-door talks.

These negotiations could result in Congress pushing through a bill at the last minute without any opportunity for the public to review and comment on this bill or ask for any changes. This is not how Congress should work!

As this goes to all of you, several major conservation groups have just released a comprehensive paper full  of more than 50 actions both the state and federal government can take to relieve the current drought, as well as amour California against future dry periods. Congress should take the time to review and discuss this new paper before taking any actions. The primary goal of the paper is a balanced approach to water management to both provide water for people and the environment. The current Congressional effort does not accomplish that balance.

Legislation that undermines state and federal wildlife and water quality laws could imperil native salmon runs along the West Coast, devastate the critically endangered Delta smelt, lead to starvation and disease among the majestic birds that migrate along the Pacific Flyway, and compromise drinking water quality for millions.

Coho salmon

Coho salmon

Water shortages this year have been caused by the drought – not environmental protections. Federal legislation weakening environmental protections won’t make it rain.

Short sighted Congressional action that undermines these laws is not an answer to the problems, but only an effort to help some communities at the expense of others. Some farmers win, others lose. All fishing communities in central California, coastal areas from central California to Portland, Oregon, lose. San Francisco Bay estuary loses. The S.F. Bay-Delta, the hub of farming and recreation for much of the north state loses. This is not a balanced approach, and picks winners and losers.

There are sustainable solutions to the drought but undermining existing environmental protections should not be part of them. We ask Congress not to undermine important environmental protections, and to take the time to review the new drought relief document from the conservation community. Winter is here giving us some time to be thoughtful and diligent. Congress should not make things worse by a quick and unbalanced legislation.

USFWS: Protect Wisconsin’s wolves

 A group of respected scientists recently alerted the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) that the state of Wisconsin is inaccurately reporting the impacts of aggressive hunting and trapping seasons, poaching, and other factors leading to wolf mortality, leaving the FWS unable to accurately detect what could be a substantial decline in wolves in the Western Great Lakes.

Photo credit Flickr user Sherwood411

Photo credit Flickr user Sherwood411

In a pair of letters to FWS Director Dan Ashe and the Acting Regional Director, the scientists laid out the results of their research showing that the state of Wisconsin could be radically undercounting wolf deaths. Their findings show that contrary to the state’s reported 28 percent, wolf mortality could be as high as 55 percent.  They reported that among radio-collared wolves in 2012, for every 4 wolves legally hunted, another 7 were illegally killed, 8 were killed by the government or vehicles, and 2 died of natural causes.

Following that, the state declared another wolf-hunting season and legally hunted another 257 wolves in October 2013 and 150 wolves in October 2014. At the close of last season, the state reported a staggering 19 percent decline in the population.

Wisconsin’s wolf population cannot handle more of the same. These scientists warn that the according to their findings, the population could be on the verge of collapse. 

The scientists alerted Director Ashe and his staff in September. They received a written reply advising them to pursue the matter with Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources. as “the Service no longer serves as a regulating entity to protect the wolf…”

The Endangered Species Act is clear about what is expected of the Service. It says:

“The Secretary shall implement a system in cooperation with the States to monitor effectively for not less than five years the status of all species which have recovered to the point at which the measures provided pursuant to this Act are no longer necessary.”

wiwolfharvestdnrIf what the scientists have found is accurate–and to date their findings have not been challenged–the Service has a responsibility to immediately protect Wisconsin’s wolves. The Act does not give Director Ashe and his staff the option to defer their work to the states when convenient.  

Right now, the state’s hunting and trapping season is by its count 8 animals short of their annual quota just one month into a 4 month season. If the analysis of the state’s data is correct, they could be well beyond that already-aggressive limit, pushing these just-recovered wolves back to the brink. 

The Endangered Species Act grants the FWS authority to temporarily relist species when serious concerns have been raised about the state’s management plan.  The FWS must now act on that authority and relist wolves while it assembles an independent peer review board to analyze the state’s wolf plan. 

You can take action by asking FWS Director Ashe to immediately relist Wisconsin’s wolves.

Less lead ammunition & less lead poisoning in California condors

Potentially great news as reports show that Federal biologists are reporting a dramatic drop in the treatment of California condors suffering from lead poisoning.

The Summit County Citizens Voice reported that just “13 condors were treated for lead exposure between Sept. 1, 2013 and Aug. 31, 2014, down from 28 birds the previous year.” 

Initiatives to reduce the use of lead ammunition are credited for the decrease in poisonings. Lead poisoning is one of the greatest roadblocks to continued condor recovery. You can learn more about the evidence of toxic effects of lead in wildlife and solutions to address the problem at, a project of ESC member group, the Center for Biological Diversity.

You can read the whole piece on the Summit County Citizens Voice website.

Making Halloween Howl-o-Ween

Get tools to make wolves part of your Halloween celebration.

Halloween is days away and it couldn’t be coming at a more important time for wolves. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is set to release any day its rule kicking virtually all of the wolves in the lower 48 off of the endangered species list.  Wolves have barely begun to recover across the country and need protections to get there. We’re seeing in states from Idaho, to Wyoming, to Wisconsin what disastrous policies are produced when Endangered Species Act protections are removed.

This Halloween we are celebrating wolves and the fight to protect them through our Howl-o-Ween campaign. Halloween Howl-o-Ween is an easy time to help spread the word and organize support for wolves. We’ve designed small flyers  that you can hand out to ghouls and goblins at your door or others that you can give to thank people for candy while trick-or-treating. If you’re dressing up for Howl-o-Ween, we have instructions on making a wolf mask and links to buy them online if you prefer.  We even have printable sticker graphics and social media buttons. Learn more at

Most importantly, you can sign the Citizens’ Wolf recovery Vision Statement and ask others to join you. It spells out clear, achievable steps to achieve real and enduring wolf recovery in the United States.  We will deliver it to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to give them a roadmap to success.


New Report Highlights Ten American Species Our Children May Never See

 Monarch Butterflies Have Declined by More Than 90 Percent


Washington, D.C. – Our children are less likely to see monarch butterflies, a bumblebee, and a host of other once-common wildlife species due to farm pesticides, declining ocean health, climate change and dirty energy production, according to a new report by the Endangered Species Coalition. The report, Vanishing: Ten American Species Our Children May Never See, highlights ten disappearing species and the causes of their dramatic population declines. Additionally, the report identifies everyday actions that people can take to help slow the disappearance of our nation’s iconic wildlife. The report can be viewed and downloaded from the website: 

“With each passing day, our children are less and less likely to experience the full beauty of nature and see the kind of wildlife that baby boomers, Gen Xers, and even Millennials experienced,” said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition. “We owe it to our future generations of Americans to protect our vanishing wildlife and the special places they call home.”

According to the report, up to a billion monarch butterflies used to color our skies each summer, yet only about 33 million remain – a decline of more than 90 percent. Additionally, the once-common little brown bat has been decimated by the fungal disease, White-nose syndrome, and is now virtually extinct in the Northeast United States. Finally, the rusty-patched bumblebee, an important pollinator, has disappeared across 87 percent of its range, and diseases are thought to be responsible.

Coalition member groups nominated wildlife species in the report. A committee of distinguished scientists reviewed the nominations, and decided which species should be included in the report. “Scientists agree that climate change is a huge threat in many direct and indirect ways to species diversity and survival,” said Dr. Jan Randall, Professor Emeritus of Biology at San Francisco State University, and chair of the scientific advisory committee for the report.

“As the situation for many species grows ever more dire, our direct actions are able to rescue some of them from extinction,” said Dr. Peter Raven, President Emeritus, Missouri Botanical Garden. “This list should inspire hope and at the same time lead us to devote full attention to the species most in need.”

The ten species in the report are the mountain yellow-legged frog, monarch butterfly, North Pacific right whale, great white shark, little brown bat, whitebark pine, rusty patched bumblebee, greater sage-grouse, polar bear, and the Snake River sockeye salmon.

“Snake River sockeye are among the highest and farthest migrating salmon on the planet – climbing 6,000 feet in elevation and 900 miles against the current to return to their spawning grounds,” said Sam Mace, Inland Northwest Program Director for the Save Our wild Salmon Coalition. “We are the last generation that can save these extraordinary fish from extinction.”

“The monarch butterfly is a part of almost every child’s summer experience,” said Sarina Jepsen, endangered species program director at the Xerces Society. “The loss of such a widespread butterfly suggests that we are changing our landscape at an unprecedented scale.” 

“When species like monarch butterflies and whitebark pine are in trouble, that means we’re all in trouble, because they’re leading indicators of the health of the planet,” said Frances Beinecke, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “By acting now to conserve these animals and plants for future generations, we will also be restoring our natural heritage and creating a safer, healthier world for all.”

“This report does a great service by calling attention to the fact that species are vanishing before our eyes, including species like the little brown bat, which are underappreciated and, despite their small size, are of enormous value to our ecosystem,” said Cathy Liss, President of the Animal Welfare Institute.

The Endangered Species Coalition has also produced a slide show to accompany the report, featuring stunning photos of each of the ten species in the report. The Coalition produces a “Top 10” report annually, focusing on a different theme each year. Previous years’ reports are also available on the Coalition’s website.

The Ten American Species Our Children May Never See:


Mountain yellow-legged frog

Ninety-five percent of the Sierra Nevada and Southern California mountain yellow-legged frog populations have gone extinct due to human degradation of their habitats. Lakes we’ve stocked with trout are devoid of tadpoles, and pesticide contamination causes mutations, sterility, and death. More than 1,800 species of frogs currently face extinction.

Contact: Tierra Curry, Center for Biological Diversity, 928-522-3681,                  


Monarch butterfly

Monarch butterflies are totally dependent on milkweed for survival, but the wide-spread use of pesticides is killing off milkweed across millions of acres of the monarch’s core summer habitat. Climate change and illegal logging in their Mexican winter refuge further imperils the monarch’s survival.

Contact: Sarina Jepsen, Xerces Society, 971-244-3727,


North Pacific right whale

The North Pacific right whale is the most endangered whale on Earth; there may be as few as thirty remaining in U.S. waters. Lack of genetic diversity and diminishing food sources due to climate change are major threats, but human activities—oil spills, ship strikes, and the Navy’s live sonar testing—may be sounding the death knell for this marine mammal.

Contact: Bill Rossiter, Cetacean Society, 203-770-8615,                  


Great white shark

Only about 350 adult great white sharks remain off the coasts of California and Mexico. Hunting these sharks is illegal, but hundreds of young sharks are inadvertently caught in fishing nets and die each year. Great white sharks are the largest predatory fish and are important to maintaining balance in their ocean ecosystem.

Contact: Amelia Vorpahl, Oceana, 202-467-1918,


Little brown bat

Little brown bats are in peril due to white-nose syndrome, an illness caused by a deadly fungus from Europe. These bats are virtually extinct in their core Northeast range, and up to 99 percent have died in affected areas. Weakened immune systems due to pesticide exposure and human disturbance in their caves are also factors in their demise.

Contact: Katie Gilles, 512-327-9721, Bat Conservation International,; Amey Owen, Animal Welfare Institute, 301-706-1390,


Whitebark pine

Whitebark pine forests used to be plentiful high in the Rockies, but climate change has allowed beetle infestations and fungal disease to destroy these trees. More than 100 species depended on this pine for shelter and food, and the pine’s shading limbs regulated snow melt well into summer.

Contact: Sylvia Fallon, Natural Resources Defense Council, 202-513-6246,


Rusty patched bumblebee

The rusty patched bumblebee is a critical pollinator. Its “buzz pollination” produces tomatoes that are consistently larger and sweeter than those produced by other pollination techniques. The rusty patched bumblebee is threatened by diseases from commercial bumble bees. All bumblebees face threats from the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on plants that can even make their nectar and pollen toxic.

Contact: Sarina Jepsen, Xerces Society, 971-244-3727,


Greater sage-grouse

The greater sage-grouse’s habitat once encompassed nearly 300 million acres, but their range has declined dramatically as humans have moved in to graze livestock and drill for oil and gas, without regard for sage-grouse habitat needs. Hundreds of miles of roads have fragmented sage-grouse populations, which are in peril due to aggressive degradation of their habitat.

Contact: Steve Holmer, American Bird Conservancy, 202-888-7490,; Mark Salvo, Defenders of Wildlife,


Polar bear

Polar bears are entirely dependent on ice for fishing, and a large adult requires an average of 4 to 5 pounds of seal blubber every day just to maintain its weight. But as climate change alters their habitat, they are being forced inland for denning, breeding, and feeding.

Contact: Contact: Shaye Wolf, Center for Biological Diversity, 415-632-5301,


Snake River sockeye salmon

Federal dams block the lower Snake River, making it almost impossible for these salmon to migrate to their spawning grounds high in the Rocky Mountains. These are the most endangered salmon in the world, but scientists agree that they can make a comeback if the river is unblocked so they can complete their life cycle by migrating to and from Redfish Lake.

Contact: Sam Mace, Save Our Wild Salmon, 509-863-5696,


For more information please contact Derek Goldman, (406) 721-3218 or Tara Thornton, (207) 268-2108.




Red Wolf Recovery at Critical Junction

This is a guest post from conservation biologist Justin Bohling. The USFWS is currently evaluating the future of the Red Wolf Recovery Program and is accepting public comments. Please take action to support the continued operation of the program here.


We have reached a critical junction in the recovery of the critically endangered red wolf (Canis rufus). The story of the red wolf is a complicated one, which has likely contributed to its anonymity. Historically distributed across the southeastern United States, the species was extirpated from much of range due to habitat loss and overharvest. Remnant populations then became threatened by hybridization with coyotes, which expanded in range as the red wolf disappeared. In the 1970s biologists identified only 14 remaining wild red wolves in the species’ last stronghold in a coastal region on the Texas-Louisiana border. Those individuals were transported to Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, WA and the species was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. 

Just inland from the famed Outer Banks, the five-county Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula in eastern North Carolina was selected as the location for the first red wolf reintroduction program. At the time, there were no coyotes present in this area. The first wolves were released in 1987 and the population grew slowly. Soon coyotes rapidly colonized the state and in 1993 the first hybridization event between a red wolf and coyote was documented. In response, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and scientists developed an aggressive management strategy to prevent the red wolf from disappearing once again. Since the management program was implemented in 2000, the red wolf population has grown to 80-100 individuals and hybridization with coyotes has been limited.

 Despite these successes, the program has suffered recent setbacks. Hunting of coyotes in North Carolina is relatively unrestricted. Although it is illegal to purposefully kill a red wolf, it is allowable to claim a defense of mistaken identity. Red wolves are similar in appearance to coyotes and consequently are occasionally killed. Recently the state allowed the hunting of coyotes at night, which likely exacerbates this problem. Deaths of red wolves from gunshot have increased over time. Not only does this reduce the red wolf population, but it may facilitate hybridization with coyotes by disrupting stable breeding pairs.

 Several conservation organizations have sued the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission over its approach to coyote management, which they argue threatens red wolf conservation. A federal judge recently issued an injunction restricting coyote hunting in the five-county recovery area. In response, the state submitted a request to the US Fish and Wildlife Service to evaluate the red wolf program and determine the future of recovery efforts. This includes the possibility of terminating the program.

 Along with returning a rare species to the wild, the program has been an inspiration for the recovery of other endangered species worldwide. Given the precarious nature of the red wolf, field and zoo biologists had to experiment with novel techniques to facilitate the preservation of this species. Managers at the Point Defiance Zoo utilized ground-breaking techniques in captive breeding and reproductive biology to manage the small population that are now commonplace in zoos. The red wolf program is one of the first efforts to reintroduce a species into the wild using individuals bred in captivity. Biologists honed techniques such as soft-releases and acclimation periods. Another strategy was the release of captive-born red wolves to isolated islands along the coast of the Southeast US. These islands, which are relatively free of human disturbance, provided wolves the opportunity to learn ‘how to be wild’ while ensuring their safety.

The management strategy itself is an incredible achievement. Combining field surveys with genetic monitoring to limit hybridization is a revolutionary approach. Non-invasive genetic sampling, which involves collecting DNA from biological material such as feces, has been instrumental to monitoring efforts. Researchers using genetics reconstructed the pedigree for the wild wolf population, a feat that provided unprecedented information on the life history of these animals. The Fish and Wildlife Service also experimented with sterilizing coyotes they captured to serve as territorial “placeholders” that would exclude fertile coyotes from colonizing the region. To provide the population with a boost of genetic diversity, federal biologists place captive-born pups into wild litters, a process known as “cross-fostering”. This practice has been adopted by other endangered species recovery programs.

 The red wolf program provided a template for the reintroduction of wolves to the western US. Recovery of this species involved a collaborative effort involving federal agencies, wildlife biologists, private landowners, the zoo community, academic researchers, conservation organizations, and additional partners. The recovery program should be trumpeted not only for its achievements in advancing red wolf restoration but inspiring similar efforts across the globe.

 As part of the review process, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has requested the public to submit comments regarding their thoughts on the red wolf program. The comment period is open until September 12th and several public meetings will be held. Canceling the program would give the red wolf the dubious distinction of being the first species declared extinct in the wild twice. Twenty-seven years of recovery and innovation have demonstrated the value of this program and it is critical that these efforts be continued.

Justin Bohling is a conservation biologist interested in advancing conservation strategies addressing the threats posed by hybridization and genetic introgression. His PhD dissertation received from the University of Idaho focused on red wolf biology and recovery. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Université Montpellier 2 in France.

New Zealand Government Willfully Allowing Extinction of Native Dolphins

Zoe Helene Interviews World Expert Scientist Dr. Elisabeth “Liz” Slooten

This is a guest post from animal rights advocate Zoe Helene (@zoehelene), who interviewed world expert scientist and New Zealander Dr. Elisabeth “Liz” Slooten.

This iconic shot of a beautiful little leaping New Zealand dolphin is by marine scientist Will Rayment

The New Zealand government is willfully allowing the extinction of their own native dolphin species, the endangered Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori) and the critically endangered Maui’s Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui). New Zealand marine scientist Dr. Elisabeth “Liz” Slooten  is doing everything she can to stop it.

A member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Cetacean Specialist Group  and former New Zealand representative on the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission  and the Otago University Marine Mammal Research Group, Slooten is a tireless researcher and the world’s leading expert on New Zealand’s native Maui’s dolphin, whose population has plummeted from 2,000 in 1970 to about 50 today. That perilously low number means the species could go extinct at any moment; the only two classifications worse than “critically endangered” are ”extinct in the wild” and “extinct.” Period. End of story. At this critical moment in history, the world needs to wake up quickly and pressure New Zealand do something before it’s too late.

Slooten is waking up the world with indisputable science about how shockingly unsustainable gill and trawl net fishing methods, which catch the dolphins in nets and kill them as “bycatch,” are pushing the dolphins into extinction. “What is it about the words ‘critically endangered’ that the decision-makers don’t understand?” she says. “This extinction is totally avoidable.”

Because the current government in New Zealand refuses to protect the dolphins, the nation’s upcoming 2014 General Elections on September 20 will be a critical moment for the their survival. Animal rights activist and correspondent Zoe Helene talks to Slooten about what’s at stake.

Is it true that the powers-that-be in the New Zealand government are knowingly supporting the extinction of New Zealand’s only endemic species of dolphin? And that they’ve been fully aware of the rapid decline since 1970?

Yes. The population is declining rapidly. There were 140 in 1985, 111 in 2004. Right now there are only about 50 left—some 20 breeding females!

When did the crisis first come to light?

We first started to realize this was a problem in the 1970s. By the mid 1980s it was abundantly clear that Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins were declining rapidly due to bycatch. The first draft of a recovery plan for Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins was written in the 1990s.

Roughly, what are the statistics of decline?

Hector’s dolphins have declined from around 30,000 individuals in 1970 to fewer than 8,000 today. Maui’s dolphins have declined from around 1,000 individuals to fewer than 80 individuals today (the latest population estimate is 50).

There are only two classifications worse than “critically endangered,” and they are “extinct in the wild” and “extinct,” full stop. Could the species go extinct?

The Maui’s dolphin could go extinct at any moment and certainly within a decade or two if we keep killing them in fishing nets. Hector’s dolphins would continue to slide from “endangered” to “critically endangered.” Several Hector’s dolphin populations (e.g. on the north and south coasts of the South Island) are already in the same situation as Maui’s dolphin.

This extinction is totally avoidable. We don’t even need to do anything complicated like habitat protection, supplementary feeding or anything like that. All we need to do is stop killing these dolphins in fishing nets. 

It’s incredibly urgent to allow the Maui’s dolphin population to recover to at least several hundred individuals as soon as possible. Every day that they remain at the dangerously low population size where they are now is another very serious risk. They could disappear at any time, without further warning.

This extinction would set a precedent. New Zealand would go down in history as the first nation to extinguish a marine dolphin.

The Maui’s dolphin would be the first marine dolphin to go extinct at the hands of humans. Even during the great whaling era, humans didn’t quite manage to completely wipe out any whale or dolphin species.

New Zealand is already infamous for wiping out the Moa (Dinornis robustus) and the Haast’s Eagle (Harpagornis moorei). The Maui’s Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui) would be the third human-caused extinction in New Zealand. As a New Zealander, how does that make you feel?

Ashamed. Many international marine mammal scientists are looking to New Zealand to do the right thing. Really, if we cannot protect a critically endangered species that is found only here in New Zealand, then we might as well all go home and give up.

Is this extinction avoidable?

This extinction is totally avoidable. We don’t even need to do anything complicated like habitat protection, supplementary feeding or anything like that. All we need to do is stop killing these dolphins in fishing nets. We don’t even need to stop fishing. Selective, sustainable fishing methods are already available. Making the transition to these dolphin-safe fishing methods would benefit not only dolphins but also seabirds, sharks and fish. Within a few years this would actually bring economic benefits to the New Zealand fishing industry. They are just stuck in denial and thinking only about short-term profits rather than the long-term survival of their own industry.

Are there ways to fish without harming the dolphins?

Yes, absolutely! Many alternative fishing methods are available. These include fish traps and a range of hook-and-line methods. These are already being used around New Zealand and in other parts of the world. The vast majority of marine recreational fishers (a ministry of fisheries study estimates more than 90 percent) do not use gillnets. Changing to selective, sustainable fishing methods will benefit not only dolphins, but also seabirds and fish stocks. This will be in the long-term economic interests of the fishing industry.  

The last time the New Zealand government put significant protective measures in place, the SeaFood Industry Council (SeaFIC) New Zealand’s coalition of seafood industry corporations, sued for “loss of revenues.” For a remote island country with just shy of 4.5 million citizens, SeaFIC seems like an overwhelming force. Do you feel free to speak openly to national and/or international media?

Sure, I speak out openly. As a scientist, I base my comments on the biological reality of the situation. The problem is that the decision makers are not really interested in the science. 

In an ideal situation, what protection measures need to be in place to save both the Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins?

Every relevant group of scientists in New Zealand and internationally has now supported protection for Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins out to the 100-meter depth contour.

Does the government understand this?

The current government has ignored advice from the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, (200 international whale and dolphin experts), the IUCN and the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group(about 100 members) the Society for Marine Mammalogy (2,000 members) and the New Zealand Marine Sciences Society  (about 250 members). All of these scientists agree that Maui’s dolphins and the species as a whole (Hector’s dolphins) range offshore to the 100-meter depth contour. The scientific consensus is that Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins should be protection to the 100-meter depth contour (or at least to 20 nautical miles offshore).

New Zealand’s SeaFood Industry Council’s positioning statement is basically, “we simply don’t have enough good independent data on the dolphins.”

After more than 30 years of research on Maui’s and Hector’s dolphins, there’s more than enough scientific data showing their population number and reasons they’re in rapid decline. The Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission ( recommended last year that there should be no more research done on Maui’s dolphins. They repeated the same advice this year. The New Zealand government has totally ignored the IWC recommendations.

In fact, we have much more data on this conservation problem than for almost every other dolphin in the world. Dr. Andy Read, a marine mammal scientist from Duke University, visited New Zealand a few years ago and said exactly that. In a talk to New Zealand decision makers, he said the Hector’s dolphin was an “exceptionally well-studied species” and the time had come to act and protect these dolphins. Likewise, the Society for Marine Mammalogy, in a letter to the New Zealand government in January 2013, said that, “Scientists from New Zealand and elsewhere have provided an exceptionally strong scientific basis for managing fisheries to prevent the extinction of Maui’s dolphins.”This is not the time to continue to call for “more research.” This is the time to put in place effective protection measures.

How does echolocation work and why can’t dolphins use it to detect nets? 

Dolphins use echo-location to locate their prey – it’s like seeing with sound. Dolphins send out a stream of high-frequency clicking noises, and when the sound strikes an object it bounces back and the dolphin can tell by listening what the object is—what kind of fish it is, how far away it is and how fast it’s moving. In familiar areas, their echo-location is turned off, which means they cannot always detect dangers.

What happens when a dolphin drowns in one of these nets?

Unlike humans, dolphins actively decide to breathe. When humans are knocked unconscious, they keep breathing. An unconscious dolphin stops breathing. They usually just don’t breathe and run out of air. Drowning is not a nice way to die. A dolphin caught in a net struggles madly to try to escape. At the end of this struggle, the dolphin suffocates. It would take up to five minutes or so to die.

Do other dolphins try to help the dolphin that’s caught in the net? 

If there are other dolphins around they will often try to release the entangled dolphin. We’ve seen one dolphin that had died in a gillnet that was covered in fresh toothrakes, many of which were bleeding. It seems that the other dolphins in the group tried to get this dolphin out of the net and failed. We have also seen a dolphin calf that was caught in a net with a lot of toothrakes on it, indicating that the mother had tried to get her calf out of the net. That was such a sad sight.

“The calf needs a couple of years with mum, to learn how to use its sophisticated echolocation system, find fish, avoid sharks, the social rules of dolphin society and other important survival skills. These are very sophisticated animals in terms of their biology, communication system and social organization. Like humans, much of this information is learned.” - Liz Sloten

What happens to an orphaned baby dolphin when his or her mother drowns in a net?

Usually an orphaned calf dies.

Many—maybe even most—people don’t understand that other species teach their children, just like we do. 

The calf needs a couple of years with mum, to learn how to use its sophisticated echolocation system, find fish, avoid sharks, the social rules of dolphin society and other important survival skills. These are very sophisticated animals in terms of their biology, communication system and social organization. Like humans, much of this information is learned. 

The New Zealand Department of Tourism is funded and controlled by the National Party, the current party in power in Parliament, led by Prime Minister John Key. Key is also the (self-appointed) Minister of Tourism. In light of the readily available information around this issue, his “100% Pure New Zealand”  international advertising campaign seems painfully hypocritical and intentionally misleading. How long do you think it will take for intelligent tourists to wake up to this?

Many tourists are already waking up to this. I think this will start to hurt the tourism industry within a few years, unless the government gets serious about protecting its endemic dolphins. If we lose our reputation as a clean, green, sustainable country, this will also make people overseas reluctant to buy any New Zealand products. 

Strictly from a savvy business/brand perspective, it seems rational to flip the situation around and not only protect the dolphin but promote the dolphin as a treasure found only in New Zealand?

Absolutely. We are looking to green business leaders to help with this.

Does pressure from outside of New Zealand help?

So far, international pressure has had a much stronger effect than local pressure. It’s partly to do with New Zealand’s desire to become a member of the United Nations Security Council. New Zealand is very sensitive to any criticism from other countries but almost completely insensitive to the wishes of its own citizens.

People outside New Zealand can write to prominent politicians (and/or newspapers, blogs, Facebook sites, etc.) to say that if New Zealand doesn’t immediately protect its endangered, endemic dolphins, then they will cancel their next holiday to New Zealand and stop buying New Zealand fish and other New Zealand products.

Why don’t more New Zealanders know about their own endemic dolphin? Why isn’t this common knowledge, and something to be proud of? Why isn’t it taught in schools? What’s the disconnect—really?

That’s a good question. There certainly are a lot more people who know about them now. The book Dolphins Down Under: Understanding the New Zealand Dolphin has helped, and there’s a lot of discussion online and lots of public talks. But still, a surprising number of people don’t seem to know about New Zealand’s own dolphin.

What can New Zealand citizens do to help?

Please vote!!!

From the dolphin’s perspective, how important is the general election on September 20?

This election is extremely important. TheNational Party has made it very clear that it will do nothing more to protect Maui’s or Hector’s dolphins. Therefore, if they get back into government, there will be no progress. Hector’s dolphins may be sufficiently large to cope with another three years of population decline. Maui’s dolphins would be very unlikely to make it.

If we get a change of government, that would change everything. We will either end up with a continuation of the current, right wing government dominated by the National Party or we may end up with a left-wing government that includes the Labour Party and several smaller parties including the Green Party, Maori Party and Internet Mana Party. Labour Party politicians have put in place 94 percent of the protection for Hector’s and Maui’s dolphins.

Young Kiwi voters could rock the vote in the upcoming Elections!

Only about 50 percent of young people in New Zealand vote. If we can get them to register to vote (ASAP) and then to actually vote (on 20 September), that would make a huge difference.

What about eating fish?

Provide information outside your supermarket or fish shop. Also, when you buy fish, ask how it was caught (and don’t buy it if you don’t get a sensible answer or the answer is “in a net”).

You’ve tirelessly focused on this issue for decades. Do you still have hope?

Absolutely! Things would have been much worse without the protection measures that have been put in place in the last 30 years. All we need now is one more push to ensure Maui’s dolphins are not lost forever and Hector’s dolphins don’t keep sliding toward the same fate.


New Zealand Whale & Dolphin Trust (

Resources for Helping to Save New Zealand’s Native Dolphin (

Photo of New Zealand Mother and Calf by Steve Dawson

Photo of New Zealand Dolphin Jumping Will Rayment

Zoe Helene ( is a media correspondent and advocate for women, wildlife and wilderness. She spent 10 influential years growing up in Aotearoa, the Maori word for New Zealand, which means The Land of the Long White Cloud. Zoe works with leading activists, scientists and environmental organizations across the globe to save species such as the critically endangered Maui’s Dolphin and endangered Hector’s dolphin from extinction. Hector’s and Maui’s are New Zealand’s only native dolphins. Zoe, like the native Maori, considers them taonga, a treasure to protect and cherish.

States acting to ban ivory, protect elephants

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie took a strong stand for elephants and rhinos this month by signing into law a ban on ivory and rhino horn trafficking in the state. New Jersey’s location and ports allow it to be a hub of ivory trading, making this decision even more important. This law is one of the first of its kind in the country, and sets penalties for importing, selling or purchasing any ivory or rhinoceros horn product. This law also serves to close loopholes in federal law that allow a great deal of ivory product to be disguised and traded as antique.

The total population of African elephants is estimated to be only 420,000, down from 1.2 million in 1980, with poaching incidents decreasing that number daily. Although China, where ivory prices have tripled since 2010, is the largest retail consumer of ivory, the United States comes in a close second. The best way that the United States can work to protect these species is by completely banning ivory and rhino horn sales. International efforts to work with Thailand, China, and others to close their ivory markets are also vital. Without change, extinction could be imminent. Many organizations on the ground in Africa are also working to protect these species through the use of anti-poaching units and by rehabilitating and releasing orphaned elephants and rhinos (

black-rhinoceros-11282318477XvGOThe importance of protecting elephants and other native African animals cannot be disputed. Not only have elephants been shown to be sentient and empathetic beings, they also have an important niche in their ecosystems. They play a vital role in regulating vegetation and use their large footprints, tusks and trunks to create pools that serve as sources of water for many other species.  Non-consumptive wildlife tourism, such as photographic safaris, also brings a large and sustainable source of revenue to African communities. Studies show that a live wild elephant brings more revenue to a country in its lifetime than is made through its tusks or trophy hunting. This makes conserving rhinos, elephants, and other native animals even more important. 

Not only is this historic law a win for these endangered species, it is also an important matter of national security as the ivory trade has been strongly linked to terrorist activity. On World Elephant Day August 12th, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a similar, but less stringent, ban into law. The federal government is also seemingly taking action to protect elephants and rhinos, as they proposed new regulations earlier this year and reportedly may release stricter rules this summer. These are encouraging steps forward in the fight against poaching and wildlife trafficking.

Hopefully, states such as California, Florida, and Illinois with port areas and large populations will be the next to take strong and decisive action against the trade in ivory and rhino horn by enacting similar bans. This, along with steps taken by the federal government to eliminate the ivory trade could help prevent African elephants and rhinos from facing extinction in our lifetimes.


You can take action by asking President Obama to end the legal trade in all ivory.