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Transcending the Big Bad Wolf

This is a guest post from Anthony J. Giordano, M.S., Ph.D.. He is the Founder and Executive Director of SPECIES: Society for the Preservation of Endangered Carnivores & their International Ecological Study.

In the history of western civilization, no animal has been as systematically vilified as the wolf. Neither spider nor snake, bat nor rat, nor shark of any kind, can make this claim. For many, the wolf is still the thing that kept us close to the campfire, its restless shadow and eager panting holding sleep at bay, its howl the fingers of winter’s embrace. For them, it is why they remind their children to stay close.

Hate of the wolf is part of our politics. More than 60 times in the past few years, Conservatives and Republicans in Congress have sought to undermine the Endangered Species Act – mostly to get at the wolf. These representatives furtively introduce amendments to proposed legislation that would delist wolves, turning “management authority” over to the states and putting them back in the crosshairs. This includes shoot-on-site laws where they are still in recovery. Beholden to rural agricultural lobbyists with agendas contrary to most American’s values, they use mischaracterization and fear to drive the ranks of their propaganda machine, infecting government agencies with it.

As new generations of Americans rise to positions of influence and power, they will likely do so with less lupine vitriol, embracing a philosophy of coexistence with this remarkable predator, and removing the hate from decision-making.

Take Oregon for example. Recently it very publicly failed the 83 wolves in 9 packs that reside within its borders. That’s all the wolves Oregon has at the moment, mind you, having returned in 1999 after a 60 year absence. Given how the state’s wildlife commission has behaved however, you wouldn’t know this. Rather, you’d believe wolves had never gone, instead staying behind red in tooth and claw to wage war on the commercial livestock industry. In April, despite an open hearing where teachers, veterans, and the department’s own former staff testified 33 – 5 in favor of wolf protection, the commission unanimously instructed its staff to provide recommendations for delisting . With state wolf recovery then hanging in the balance, the propaganda machine went to work, decrying the statewide havoc wolves would wreak.

This past summer, as the state rolled out their “management plan” in what can at best be considered a shameless disregard for science, two adult wolves raising 5-month old pups were found dead under suspicious circumstances within 50 feet of each other. One was the semi-famous OR-21, who struck out on her own in 2014. And in the climax, last month after more than 90% of 22,000 solicited public comments were in support of maintaining the wolf’s protected status, and letters from countless scientists underscoring the plan’s many flaws, the state stubbornly betrayed logic and its public, voting to delist. Shame on Oregon. They presented only an illusion of fairness, an illusion that sound science, expert opinion, and the public’s values might be relevant to policy decisions.

Why should this matter to Californians? In 2011, a single wolf from Oregon, the famous OR-7, arrived in California. In anticipation of the wolf’s more permanent establishment here, California did something prescient, a sign maybe things were changing: it offered the wolf protection before it was established. Earlier this year, and much earlier than many anticipated, the echo of the Shasta Pack’s arrival in Siskiyou County rang with the wolf’s full potential to recolonize the Sierra Nevadas. But it is Oregon that likely controls the fate of wolf recolonization to the Golden State in the near future. Moreover, there is speculation that California maybe hasn’t quite gone far enough. A new state conservation plan would consider removing protections after only nine packs become resident, potentially as few as 50-60 individuals. And if California were to do this, then shame on it as well.

There is a silver lining looming on the horizon. There are 83 wolves in Oregon now, six more than when it first proposed to delist. Today, wolves occupy more of their historic range (approximately 10%) in the continental U.S. than at any time since WW II. As new generations of Americans rise to positions of influence and power, they will likely do so with less lupine vitriol, embracing a philosophy of coexistence with this remarkable predator, and removing the hate from decision-making. As they do, I expect the wolf to continue its return, and we may finally transcend this foolish notion of the big bad wolf.

Great Lakes and Wyoming Wolves Win

After hundreds of thousands of activists spoke out against it, Congress removed from its spending bill a legislative proposal  that would have abandoned gray wolves in four states.  A legislative rider that had found its way into the $1.1 trillion omnibus bill would have kicked wolves in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wyoming off of the endangered species list and barred judicial review of that action. Nearly identical to the 2011 Northern Rockies delisting of gray wolves, it sought to substitute political calculations for science and the law and turn management over to states with often-conflicting priorities. 

Wolves in these states have been subject to some of the most aggressive hunting and trapping programs: Wyoming wolves were ordered protected last year due to the state’s “shoot on sight” policy in 85 percent of the state, and Wisconsin had the troubling distinction of being the only state to allow the use of packs of hounds to chase wolves to their death. Significant questions were also raised about Wisconsin’s method of counting its population as required by the Endangered Species Act, and a federal judge found Minnesota’s plan created a “virtual carte blanche for the killing of wolves” in ordering wolves in the Great Lakes again protected last December.

Recently, a group of 70 scientists and legal scholars published an open letter detailing the scientific and legal need for the ongoing protection of wolves in the Great Lakes and beyond. This came after Senators Booker and Boxer and Representative Grijalva led 25 Senators and 92 Representatives in sending a letter to President Obama asking that he veto any bill with riders such as that which would have delisted gray wolves. Representatives Pelosi and McCollum and Senators Reid and Peters were instrumental in negotiating the removal of this rider during the budget process.

The upcoming passage of this omnibus spending bill without the wolf rider represents a big win for wolves and the people that care about their continued recovery. We should celebrate this win and thank those that made it possible.

 

Documents Show FWS Scientists Disagreed with Wolverine Decision

This is a guest post from Gretchen Goldman, lead analyst, Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Union of Concerned Scientists is an Endangered Species Coalition member group.

What do sage grouse, wolves, and burying beetles have to do with politics? A lot when we look at how decisions to protect or not protect these species have gotten tied into political debates. Instead of discussions focused on whether populations of these species are threatened, we’ve instead had conversations about the intersection of sage grouse territory with fracking sites, how wolf conservation impacts interstate commerce, and whether burying beetle habitat overlapped with Keystone XL pipeline plans. Now scientists are stepping up to bring the conversation back to science.

Of wolves and wolverines

A newly released document now confirms that FWS scientists disagreed with FWS leadership on its decision not to list the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act. Last year, I wrote about this decision when a leaked memo showed FWS leadership choosing not to list the species, despite concerns from scientists about how climate change and potential lessening of snowpack would affect wolverine populations in the northern mountain states.

The new document—that the Union of Concerned Scientists obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the FWS—is a memo from the Assistant Regional Director of Ecological Services in FWS Region 6 detailing the region’s scientific recommendation and justification for the wolverine needing federal protection. The memo states that based on the best-available science, “The Montana Field Office recommends that the wolverine listing be finalized as threatened under the [Endangered Species] Act.”

The revelation raises questions about whether the agency’s decision not to list the species, despite this recommendation from its own scientists, was based on science, as the Endangered Species Act requires. Specifically, the Act states that “the Secretary [of the Interior or of Commerce] shall make determinations … solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available…”

In another recent case, the FWS chose to delist gray wolves nationwide, ignoring the best available science coming from the independent scientific community. The FWS claimed that most of the nation was unsuitable for wolves due to “…a lack of tolerance of wolves…”. Yet a review of >100 articles on the science of tolerance for wolves does not support the claim and a summary of the literature commissioned by the FWS itself did not support the claim.

The scientific opinion of the Montana Office in the case of the wolverine and the opinions in the broader scientific community in the case of wolves were not heeded in the two cases described above. Was there additional scientific information that went into the FWS’ decision not to list the wolverine or the decision to delist the wolf? And importantly, why are the bases for this FWS decisions still unclear more than a year later? These unanswered questions demonstrate the need for an improved process for endangered species determinations at the FWS.

Let the scientific community determine what is the best available science

A growing group of scientists have signed onto a letter asking the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Department of Commerce (DOC) to follow a process for obtaining independent scientific advice on listing and delisting decisions under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The scientists’ letter outlines how the ESA mandate for best available science could be respected by relying on external, independent scientific input, without interference from non-scientists.

Specifically, the scientists are asking the DOI and DOC to entrust the scientific evaluation of species listing and de-listing determinations to an external committee of scientists who are best suited to assess the scientific evidence and make a public recommendation to the agency, based solely on the scientific and commercial data available, as the ESA requires.

Such a process makes a lot of sense. It could be implemented by the federal agencies without requiring changes to the law and it would enable the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administation to focus on implementing the ESA. The proposal would also provide the public with a better understanding of how species listing decisions are made at the agency, increasing transparency and accountability for such decisions. This could lead to less political interference in what should be science-based decisions on endangered species.

In a recent UCS survey of government scientists, 73 percent of FWS respondents thought the level of consideration of political interests at the agency was too high. A group of scientists have proposed a consistent, transparent process for endangered species determinations to address some of these concerns. Source: UCS's Progess and Problems, ucsusa.org/scientistsurvey

A sensible proposal

A recent survey of scientists at the FWS conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that such a proposal might address some concerns among agency scientists. Seventy-three percent of respondents (601 scientists) felt that consideration of political interests was too high at FWS. When asked what would most improve scientific integrity at the FWS, one scientist suggested, “clear documentation on what standards are being used to make recommendations and what standards are used in the final decision. For example, under the ESA the FWS is prohibited from considering economic considerations when making a listing recommendation. However, final decision makers are known to apply a political/industry filter to those decisions because of the perceived impact an ESA listing will have to a segment of the economy.”

Another respondent noticed a discrepancy between the level of science required to list vs. de-list a species. “Frequently, information on a particular issue (e.g., petition to list) must be overwhelming to decide to list a species, although downlisting or delisting does not have the same standard of overwhelming information to prove that a species has recovered.” A process for independent scientific advice as proposed above would seek to address these issues of political interference and inconsistent decision making within the agency.

It’s also worth noting that such a process is not unprecedented when it comes to science-based decision making at federal agencies. Take the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, which uses external Science Advisory Boards for making decisions on its rule making. The EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which I’ve written about extensively, assesses scientific understanding of ambient air pollutants and their health effects and makes recommendations to the agency on what air quality standards should be. This process creates a space for exclusive consideration of scientific evidence supporting a rule and it allows the public to observe scientific consensus-building.

Importantly, a standard, uniform process designed by the independent scientific community creates a separation between the scientific recommendation and the political decision that follows, allowing for accountability for the agencies’ decision.  First, this gives the agency political cover if it does make a decision based on science and it allows the public to hold them accountable when they don’t. Why don’t the DOI and DOC enact a similar process for species listings?

Scientists are proposing a solution that allows independent science to better inform endangered species determinations and do so in a transparent and consistent way. Please join me in supporting better use of science to protect threatened species in the US.

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This post originally appeared on the Union of Concerned Scientists website. 

70 Scientists Recommend Continued Protection for Wolves

A group of 70 scientists and scholars released an open letter this week calling for the continued protection of gray wolves in the Great Lakes and beyond.

The letter is in response to an earlier letter from a smaller group of scientists suggesting wolves should lose protections. It calls into question several of the claims made in that letter, specifically noting the authors’ misunderstandings of both the legal requirements of the Endangered Species Act and interpretation of scientific data. 

You can read the letter in its entirety here.

Federal courts have repeatedly rebuked the USFWS for failing to follow the law in attempting to delist wolves in the Great Lakes, and a proposal to delist virtually all of the nation’s gray wolves remains pending. Congress is also considering legislation that would circumvent legal requirements of the Endangered Species Act by selectively delisting wolves in as many as four states.

Take action by calling your senators and asking them to reject anti-wolf policy riders on upcoming spending bills.

 

A Thanksgiving Decades in the Making

In the heart of the Crown of the Continent along the Rocky Mountain Front lies a special place – special for the wildlife that live there, as well as for nearby Native Americans, sportsmen, and all wildlife enthusiasts. Three days before Thanksgiving, the U.S. Department of Interior finally decided do the right thing and revoke several improperly-issued oil and gas leases in this special place, thereby protecting more than 6,000 acres, right in the heart of some of the best remaining wildlife habitat in the heart of the Rockies.

The area is known as the Badger-Two Medicine, named for the streams whose headwaters are located within. Nestled between Glacier National Park, the Blackfeet Nation tribal land and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, the 165,000 acre Badger-Two is home to grizzly bears, elk, wolverine, mountain goats, westslope cutthroat trout. It has also been the spiritual epicenter for the Blackfeet Nation for centuries.

However, in mid-1980’s, Solenex, LLC, a Louisiana oil company obtained leases on 6,200 acres in the core of the Badger-Two. Although its drilling permit and leases have been suspended for two decades, Solenex attempted to revive them in 2013, prompting an outcry by conservationists and tribal members who have been fighting the leases for decades. Even Senator Jon Tester joined in, calling upon Interior to cancel the leases. This September, the federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation concluded that no amount of mitigation would repair the damage that oil and gas drilling would cause to the area, and a month later, a federal judge ordered Interior to make a determination on the leases by the end of November.

While the fight to protect the Badger-Two isn’t over (Solenex may well challenge the Secretary’s decision, and there are more than a dozen additional outstanding leases), the decision by Interior could pave the way for permanent protection of the entire Badger-Two.

That would be good. The Rocky Mountain Front – where the mountains meet the plains – is a “Serengeti” of large mammals in the lower forty-eight. The permanent protection of such a core piece of this ecosystem would provide innumerable benefits to fish and wildlife struggling to survive in a warming world. The Endangered Species Coalition applauds the decision by Secretary Jewell to retire Solenex’ leases, and thanks all the conservation groups, tribal members and advocates who have spoken up to protect the Badger-Two.

New Report Highlights 10 Rare Species with No Room to Roam

Reptiles, Fish and Large Mammals among Nation’s Most Isolated Wildlife

Washington, D.C. – Fences, dams, roads, and other developments are among the leading causes of wildlife habitat fragmentation, according to a new report released today by the Endangered Species Coalition. The report, No Room to Roam: 10 American Species in Need of Connectivity and Corridors, highlights ten rare or endangered species that lack safe, navigable corridors to connect them to important habitat or other populations. The report includes two species of fish whose migrations are blocked by dams, as well as a reptile, an amphibian and a rare panther – all whose travels are impeded by roads. The full report, along with links to photos and species info can be viewed and downloaded from the Coalition’s website.

Habitat loss and fragmentation are the biggest drivers of species decline and extinction. Fortunately, there are actions that wildlife management agencies and the public can take to better connect these species.” – Leda Huta, Executive Director, Endangered Species Coalition

“Habitat loss and fragmentation are the biggest drivers of species decline and extinction,” said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition. “Fortunately, there are actions that wildlife management agencies and the public can take to better connect these species. We owe it to our future generations of Americans to protect the special places that wildlife need to survive and migrate.”

According to the report, the Florida panther numbers less than 200 adult individuals, yet a record 25 of these cats were killed crossing roads in 2014 alone. Vehicle collisions are also taking a toll two other species featured in the report:  the California tiger salamander and the spotted turtle.

The prehistoric pallid sturgeon once swam the entire length of the Missouri River system from Montana to New Orleans, but the population has dwindled to a few hundred fish as its upstream migration to spawning areas is blocked by dams on the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. The migration route of the Chinook salmon of the Pacific Northwest (a species than received an honorable mention in the report) is also impeded by dams.

The remaining species featured in No Room to Roam include the Karner blue butterfly, the lesser prairie chicken, the Yellowstone grizzly bear, the eastern prairie fringed orchid, the Mexican gray wolf, and the palila – a rare Hawaiian finch-billed honeycreeper.

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. The report also includes everyday actions that people can take to help promote habitat connectivity, such as urging land management agencies to protect important wildlife corridors and supporting efforts to add wildlife crossings to roadways.

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, as well as maps indicating the important habitat for each species. The report and all accompanying materials are located here: www.endangered.org/no-room-to-roam.

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.

For more information please contact Derek Goldman, dgoldman@endangered.org  (406) 721-3218 or Leda Huta, lhuta@endangered.org, (202) 320-6467.

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Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission Strips Wolves of Endangered Species Act Protections

Ignoring scientists and the pleas of thousands of concerned wildlife advocates, Oregon’s Fish & Wildlife Commission voted to remove gray wolves from the state Endangered Species Act.

“It’s a travesty to see another fish and wildlife agency use politics rather than science to drive wolf management decisions. This is a time when wolves need more, not fewer protections in place to help them reach a full, sustainable comeback.” — Leda Huta, Executive Director, Endangered Species Coalition

Gray wolves in Oregon have recovered to a population of just 81 individual wolves, leaving them highly vulnerable. The decision to remove protections hinged on a highly dubious Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) report that was called into question by independent scientists. The report and associated delisting plan are described as “fundamentally flawed” by researchers due to its reliance on overly optimistic modeling that discounts the threats that small populations like those in Oregon must face.

Potentially worse than ODFW’s reliance on an erroneous study, is the agency’s selective exclusion of scientists that disagreed with their delisting plan. Scientists whose comments were not supportive of ODFW’s plan were left out of the agency’s presentation to the Oregon Fish & Wildlife Commission, calling into question both the report and the agency’s motives.

The existing population of just over 80 wolves is just 5 percent of what peer reviewed studies have determined the state can support, but the agency contends that this premature delisting will prevent a decrease in social acceptance of wolves. This assertion based on an assumption of future societal attitudes towards wolves dismisses the agency’s mandate to recover populations based on science, and inexplicably surrenders to inaccurate misperceptions of wolves. ODFW and the Fish & Wildlife Commission appear to have made this decision based only on political input from hunting and agricultural groups, with little to any credence given to scientists as required by law.

The overwhelming majority of the public that spoke out on Monday and in advance of the hearing, as well as the scientific community, supported continued protections of wolves in the state. That the agency chose to ignore all of these voices when wolves have only recovered to approximately 10 percent of the state should concern anyone interested in science-based decision making.

Update: Representative Peter DeFazio (D OR-4) released a statement calling on the Governor and Legislature to take action.

House & Senate Dems to President Obama–Veto Extinction

This Congress has seen at least 80 different legislative attacks on the Endangered Species Act. In its 42 years, the Endangered Species Act has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species placed under its protection. In spite of this bedrock law’s record of success and wild popularity, it is being targeted by anti-wildlife members of Congress at a previously unseen level of frequency and ferocity.

ESA Attacks

 

As the omnibus government spending bill makes its way through Congress, it is crucial that President Obama commit to reject any anti-Endangered Species Act provisions should they arrive on his desk. Any one of the anti-Endangered Species Act policy riders could weaken protection for the many species the law protects. Gray wolves, grizzly bears, blackfooted ferrets, beluga whales, and many more species could find their protections slashed.

This week, 25 members of the U.S. Senate joined 92 members of the House of Representatives in asking that President Obama oppose all legislative attacks on the Endangered Species Act in the Interior appropriations bill. Included in these “riders” that these Senators and Representatives are urging President Obama to reject, is one that would delist gray wolves.

This Congressional effort to safeguard the Endangered Species Act is being led by Representatives Raul Grijalva (AZ), Niki Tsongas (MA), Anna Eshoo (CA), Mike Thompson (CA), and Debbie Dingell (MI) in the House, and Senators Booker (NJ) and Boxer (CA) in the Senate. You can read their release including the letter here.

You can join these members of the Senate and House of Representatives in acting to protect one of America’s most important conservation laws by asking President Obama to Veto Extinction. 

Please call the White House at (202) 456-1111 and ask to leave a message for President Obama.

When you call, you don’t need to say a lot—just let them know your name, where you’re calling from, and this main message:

Hello. My name is [Full Name] from [City and State].  I respectfully request that President Obama reject all policy “riders” in government spending legislation that undermine the Endangered Species Act 

This is a critical time that could determine the future of the Endangered Species Act. Please make a short call to the White House today.

After you have made your call, please click here to report it.

If you would rather not make a call, you can purchase a call to be made on your behalf through the website Amplifyd.com and a percentage of the cost will be donated to the Endangered Species Coalition.

Update 11/17/15: 150 organizations including the Endangered Species Coalition sent a letter to the White House urging that President Obama flatly reject all riders that undermine the Endangered Species Act.

Science Endangered at the Fish and Wildlife Service

The Gray Wolf, The Whooping Crane, The Bald Eagle are just a few of the species of iconic wildlife that define and represent our country.  They are also some of the species that we are a few wrong steps away from losing forever.    Most Americans sleep better at night knowing that our government shares our concern for protecting these iconic species, dedicating money and manpower and using the best science to make management decisions, but a recent report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists suggest that this may not the case. 

The report surveyed 7,000 scientists in 4 different agencies, NOAA, FDA, CDC and the Fish and Wildlife Service and the results were troubling.  Of the scientists surveyed at Fish and Wildlife, 72% believe that too much consideration was given to political interests at their agency, and 47% of agency scientists believe industry interference in agency decision-making is concerning, the highest percentages of any other government agency surveyed.  These numbers suggest that our comfortable confidence that the Fish and Wildlife service is acting in the best interest of America’s wildlife is unfounded, and that FWS is in fact more concerned with catering to the best interests of politicians and their industry sponsors. 

UCSSurveyPoliticalInterest

Many of the responses from the scientists interviewed gave startling insight into the fragility of proper enforcement of the Endangered Species Act in the hands of an agency which does not base its decisions on proper scientific research.  Perhaps best stated by an interviewed FWS scientist,

Scientific integrity among biological staff is high, but is sometimes affected by political policy interventions by upper management. We are still hearing of high-level supervisors that take draft BOs home and rewrite them to fit political agendas”.

Or equally concerning: “Less political considerations are needed. Most decisions I’m aware of: wolf, wolverine, American burying beetle, mussels, were the result of political interference.” 

Besides enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, the report highlighted other challenges within the Fish and Wildlife Service.  Multiple comments described a culture of fear at FWS, both for scientists and management, scientists who feel pressured to compromise their science to protect their careers, and management who fear political attacks on the Endangered Species Act.  With a budget that is regularly reduced and continued Congressional attacks to gut the Endangered Species act, a burgeoning culture of fear and reduction of efficacy at FWS is certainly understandable, but not acceptable “Our operating budgets have been decreased, as have our staffs. Our regulatory responsibilities keep increasing. As a result, staff are often spread too thin. As long as our director is a political appointee, politics will always enter into regulatory decisions”.

With the release of UCS’s report it becomes clear that some dramatic changes within The Fish and Wildlife Service need to be made before we as Americans can once again sleep easy.  In the meantime America, wake up.  You are now the last line of defense protecting our vanishing wildlife from disappearing forever in exchange for political gain. With what we now know, the protection of our wildlife can no longer be passed off with trust that others are taking action and making appropriate decisions, your voice is needed.   Step up for wildlife and take action for change by voicing your concerns to the administration of the Fish and Wildlife Service through our action page.