Silencing the Call of the Wild: The Beastly Politics of Wolf Delisting

Defenders of the American gray wolf may have received a rare piece of good news last week, as the Obama Administration’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced in a court filing that it was postponing its plan to remove the wolf from the endangered-species list throughout the lower 48 states. This so-called delisting decision had been bitterly opposed by environmental groups and numerous scientists, who argued that wolf populations were still a long way from being genetically viable and that the wolf had only been reintroduced to a meager 5% of its potential habitat. While the FWS’s apparent volte face may be grounds for optimism that the remaining habitat could once again hear the call of the wild made famous by the novels of Jack London, any kind of celebration would be as unwise as trusting Goldman Sachs with one’s life savings. For in those areas where wolf reintroduction achieved modest success – the Northern Rockies and the Great Lakes – the wolf has already been delisted and will remain so, allowing the states to “manage” the population. And in an Administration that values transparency even less than it values the environment, the motives behind any action, or inaction, are presumptively nefarious.

Setting the Trap: A Brief Overview of Federal Wolf Protection

The reintroduction of wolves to the lower 48 began in 1995, when a limited number of Canadian wolves were brought to Yellowstone National Park. The backlash was not long in coming. In 2003, the Bush Administration “downlisted” the wolf from endangered to threatened status, and established three Distinct Population Segments (DPS), including the Northern Rockies. In 2007, the FWS proposed delisting the wolf entirely in the Northern Rockies, but environmental groups successfully sued for an injunction against the FWS plan. By the end of the Bush Administration, the FWS was poised to delist once again. Early in 2009, the new Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, in yet another stunning example Trapped Wolfof “change you can believe in,” endorsed the Bush Administration’s plan and delisted the wolf in the Northern Rockies and the Greater Yellowstone DPS. Montana and Idaho wasted no time in establishing hunting seasons, including the use of steel-jawed leg traps.

In 2010, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the Administration’s delisting of the wolf was a result of political decisions that ignored the scientific review required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Molloy ordered the reinstatement of ESA protections for the wolf. With the states and the federal government continuing to push for delisting, the various parties to the litigation stumbled toward a settlement that would allow the Montana and Idaho hunts to resume, while maintaining careful monitoring of the fledgling populations in surrounding states. In early 2011, however, Judge Molloy refused to endorse the proposed settlement, ruling that it was unfair to the parties who had not endorsed it and illegal for him to effectively abrogate the ESA by removing its protections from the wolf. It was at this point that the politics of wolf delisting became truly beastly.

Rough Rider: Jon Tester’s Bloody Precedent in the Rockies

In a tight battle for reelection, U.S. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT), introduced a rider to a must-pass budget bill that delisted the wolf throughout the Northern Rockies and Greater Yellowstone. The rider explicitly blocked any judicial review of this delisting, and also preserved a federal court decision in Wyoming holding that Wyoming’s hunting plan had been improperly rejected. (In Wyoming, wolves are treated as “shoot-on-sight” predators anywhere away from Yellowstone.1) House Republican Mike Simpson (R-ID) introduced a similar rider in the lower chamber, and President Obama signed the bill into law. In November, 2012, Jon Tester won another term in the Senate, despite the injection of $30 million of outside money that largely favored his opponent as control of the Senate hung in the balance. Tester positioned himself as a real Montana rancher rather than a property developer. Selling the wolf down the river was an obvious way to curry favor with farmers obsessed with alleged livestock depredation, and tickled the erogenous zones of hunters who sought special trophies while claiming to protect “their” elk herds.

Tester’s rider was the first time in the history of the ESA that any protected species, plant or animal, had been stripped of protection by the legislative branch. According to Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, Tester “sacrificed wolves and the Endangered Species Act to cynical, self-interested politics.” Suckling elaborated:

Tester’s rider is not only a disaster for wolf recovery, it opens the door for every self-interested politician to try to strip protection away from local endangered species. It encourages weak-link Democrats to hold the entire party hostage to their local agendas.

Tens of millions of dollars were spent building up the wolf population in the northern Rockies and giving wolves a toehold in Washington and Oregon. Now, in one fell swoop, that investment is being swept away. Wolves in Washington and Oregon may disappear in a few years. Those in the northern Rockies will begin plummeting and may be lost in a few decades.

Similar sentiments were summarized by the New York Times:

“It certainly sets a precedent, but probably more disturbingly, it sends a signal that, as far as the Obama administration is concerned, the Endangered Species Act is a bargaining chip,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Environmentalists said they are concerned lawmakers in the Republican-led House will hold other species and habitat protections hostage as the administration pursues other must-pass legislation, such as a bill to raise the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget.

Lawmakers in energy-rich states may even strive to preempt the Fish and Wildlife Service from designating protections [for] species such as the sage grouse or Arctic wildlife that could slow the development of oil and gas or other energy projects, groups said.

Jon Marvel, executive director of the Hailey, Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project — which successfully sued to restore ESA protections for wolves — said if the wolf language succeeds, it will embolden lawmakers to disable other federal statutes including the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

Equally troubling is Tester’s willingness to deprive the American people of their right to challenge the government in court. Technically, Article III of the U.S. Constitution clearly authorizes Congress to delineate the jurisdiction of the federal courts, save for a few areas of “original jurisdiction” explicitly carved out for the Supreme Court. Thus, those who would argue that Tester’s rider trespasses on a First Amendment right to petition the government for a redress of grievances face a significant counterpoint. That said, such drastic measures are seldom deployed in our polity, and it is telling that the political branches will resort to such tactics when environmental issues are involved. Ironically, as one wolf activist notes, Tester has recently been praised by liberal pundits with short memories for opposing the so-called Monsanto Protection Act, a rider inserted into yet another must-pass bill (agricultural appropriations) that allows the sale of Monsanto’s genetically-engineered crops to proceed even if a court has ruled that insufficient work has been done to establish their safety. Tester’s devotion to checks and balances, it would seem, is conveniently selective.

Tester’s delisting rider shifts the locus of the battleground to the states, where legally sanctioned brutality against the wolf has been accompanied by a political assault that cuts every bit as deep as a steel leg trap.

Great Lakes, Great Stakes: Killing Wolves and Democracy in Michigan

At the beginning of 2012, Ken Salazar’s FWS promulgated a rule delisting the wolf in the third DPS, the Great Lakes area encompassing Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. As the Humane Society reported in its May/June magazine, All Animals, Minnesota and Wisconsin both established hunts that include trapping, baiting, and, in Wisconsin, hounding. Hounding strikes us as a particularly tragic method of destruction, employing companion canines trained to obey their ignorant human masters to destroy their wild brothers and sisters. For a state to outlaw dog fighting but condone wolf hounding is to legitimate man’s most primitive and vindictive passions and shatter all hope of kinship with the rest of nature.

Michigan WolfIn Michigan, however, man’s actions as a political animal are almost as repugnant. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has announced that a wolf hunt will proceed later this year. The rules appear to us to be ripe for abuse: expecting hunters to accurately report their kills and to check in each day to see if the quota has already been met is totally unrealistic and unenforceable. The stated quota of 43 wolves in the Upper Peninsula (from a total population of approximately 650-680) is bound to be exceeded; the wolf will once again find itself reduced to a token number of animals lacking the genetic diversity to survive even in the absence of human victimization.

The Humane Society has been in the forefront of efforts to prevent Michigan’s hunt from taking place. When their latest magazine went to press, they sounded somewhat optimistic. After Governor Snyder signed the law that declared the wolf to be a game species, the Humane Society set about overturning that law through people power:

The HSUS responded swiftly, joining a coalition of groups aiming to fight the law with a ballot referendum. Staffers hustled to galvanize supporters, hosting kick-off events and organizing signature-gathering outings. More than 2,000 citizens volunteered to help…. In late March, the coalition hit its goal and then some, delivering more than 250,000 signatures to Michigan’s secretary of state, who has 60 days to now verify that 161,305 of those are valid. That would officially postpone the prospect of a hunt until Michigan’s 2014 election – when voters, finally, would get their say in the matter.

Their optimism was misplaced. Although the State Board of Canvassers certified 214,000 of the signatures as valid, they aren’t going to matter, for the political branches found a crafty way to sidestep the referendum. A new law signed by the governor gives Michigan’s Natural Resources Commission (NRC) the power to assign game status to any species it selects without requiring statutory authority. In other words, the earlier law that the HSUS’s ballot initiative aimed to overturn at the polls is no longer needed, and the people who signed that petition can go hang. If the people try similar tactics against the new law, it is abundantly clear that the political branches will simply find another way around them. Is this an example of representative democracy trumping direct democracy – a case study for political science students to discuss? Or is this simply base politics, revealing the full extent of the power enjoyed by narrow interests?

When Federalism Works

Standing out among those states where federal protection has been removed from the gray wolf, Oregon and Washington – progressive in many other ways – have heeded the voices of other interests beside the ranchers and hunters. Oregon’s legislature has increased compensation funds available to ranchers who lose livestock to wolves, but resisted calls to kill members of the state’s only established pack. Most importantly, perhaps, Oregon has insisted that ranchers employ nonlethal management techniques (range-riding, guard dogs, fencing) and has seen predation drop as a result. By contrast, in neighboring Idaho, where over 700 wolves have been killed since delisting, livestock predation has increased by 75%. This is exactly what wolf biologists predicted. When established packs are broken up and dispersed, isolated and immature wolves will take the easiest prey they can find instead of following the discipline of a pack that teaches members to hunt natural prey.

Washington has enacted a management plan that places conservation goals first. After extensive consultation with the public, the plan set a goal of fifteen breeding pairs widely dispersed across the state – far more than the current number – and maintains protection under state endangered-species laws until that goal is met. Of course, if hunting in Idaho is not halted, the chance of wolf recovery in Washington is slim to none. The Los Angeles Times has reported that at least 550 wolves were killed by hunters in the Northern Rockies this past season alone, and when deaths from federal Wildlife Services operations (at the behest of ranchers) are added in, along with other causes of mortality, the figure is hundreds higher.

The wolf’s only hope is that these more intelligent state management plans will make an impression upon the states that are currently catering purely to bloodlust and ignorance. Sadly, that prospect seems as likely as vigorous leadership from the Federal City.

The Call of the Mild

So where are we now? Why has the Obama Administration softened its stance on delisting? Has it actually softened its stance, or is it simply biding its time, waiting for the current dust to settle? At this point, there are more questions than answers, but a few conclusions may be surmised.

Barack Obama has a proven track record of convincing Democratic voters that he is a good man and has his heart in the right place. He is not and he does not, but there are enough gullible Prius drivers in California and color-dazzled black voters in Ohio to make the electoral numbers work. At this stage of the game, after Ken Salazar made his alliance with ranchers positively pellucid – not just by pursuing delisting but by aggressively targeting any wolf packs that dared to take a single steer from the wrong portion of leased public land – no thinking person should believe that the President himself cares about the wolf. It is possible that the new Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, is not another Salazar, but it is doubtful that the underlying motives of the Administration have changed. Under the patina of careful, mild-mannered, centrist positioning lurks a dark reality of rabid corporatism and imperialism.

In Richard Nixon’s America, centrism involved championing the Endangered Species Act and other groundbreaking environmental measures. In Barack Obama’s America, centrism means allowing poisons and their co-dependent crops to take over agriculture while distracting the public with meaningless but controversial subsidies to firms who build electric cars for the one percent. A Democratic base that lacks the courage to demand meaningful action on environmental issues (oThe Call of the Wildr financial reform, or social justice, or foreign policy) can be easily bought off with token gestures. And that is all this postponement is, for the wolf remains delisted in all the places it has actually tried to reclaim, and the interests that wanted its blood are enjoying their fill. Once again, Obama comes up short in a comparison with Nixon.

As the previous discussion of the Tester rider highlighted, the wolf has become a bargaining chip. With Republican congressmen in Western states worrying about primary challenges from the right, complete delisting would be a tasty morsel to throw at the feet of the insatiable hunting and ranching lobbies, and we can be sure this fact is not lost on the Administration. The circumstances in which the chip gets cashed in are barely relevant; ultimately, all that matters is that it will be. The call of the wild – that haunting, majestic, mystical, primeval cry – will be silenced in an orgy of ignorant bloodletting, just as it was in the 19th Century. That’s change we can believe in, because it’s change we’ve seen before.


  1. The wolf was duly delisted in Wyoming in 2012.

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