After Major Comeback, Is The Gray Wolf Still Endangered?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to take the gray wolf off the endangered species list. The wolf had been extirpated from the West and had dwindled most other places in the U.S. The great canine has rebounded since it was reintroduced to the northern Rockies in the 1990s and is continuing to spread into the Pacific Northwest. But biologists warn that if these wolves loses federal protection, they will not be able to return to some places, such as Colorado, where the ecosystem sorely needs them.

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The law that protects endangered species turns 40 tomorrow and perhaps the most controversial thing the government has done under the law is to reintroduce the gray wolf. Ranchers and hunters strongly opposed the move and now the federal government wants to take the gray wolf off the endangered species list. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, this time, it is the scientists who are protesting loudly.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Ecologist Carlos Carroll is walking through the snow in a wide valley in Northern California.

CARLOS CARROLL: This area has few people, lots of areas where there are no roads.

SHOGREN: He says it's a good habitat for wolves.

CARROLL: Basically, wolves need three things: an area where they're unlikely to get shot by humans, abundant prey...

SHOGREN: And open terrain so they can run down their prey. Wolves used to roam over California and most of the rest of the United States. But people hunted, trapped and poisoned them until they were nearly gone. They've been on the endangered species list since it was created. And finally in the 1990s, the federal government re-introduced wolves to the Northern Rockies.

The federal Fish and Wildlife Service already took the wolf off the endangered species list there and in the Western Great Lakes. Now it wants to cancel federal protections in most other states as well. Carroll's research is funded by a pro-conservation Wilburforce Foundation. He's one of at least 16 wolf experts who oppose the proposal.

He says under the Endangered Species Act, if there's suitable habitat, animals should be returned to much of their old ranges. And on this issue and others, he says...

CARROLL: We think the service is getting the science wrong in the interest of accommodating anti-wolf political forces. The work that myself and my colleagues have done that has shown that there is abundant suitable habitat in parts of the West where wolves are not yet recovered, the service is trying to ignore that information.

SHOGREN: He says wolves still need to be re-introduced to some areas. In others, they need to be protected while they're gaining ground. Wolves already spread to Washington and Oregon from the Northern Rockies and Canada. Single animals have roamed into California but haven't stayed. The states of Washington and Oregon plan to protect wolves, so Carroll thinks eventually, even if federal protections are ended, wolves will return to California.

But that's not true for other places with great wolf habitat but no wolves. The best example is Colorado. Wolves have made it to Colorado in the past but have been illegally shot or run over. Carroll says the obstacles are even bigger now because in neighboring Wyoming, where wolves are already de-listed, people are allowed to shoot wolves on sight in much of the state.

CARROLL: Both from the north and the south, loss of federal protections would prevent wolves from reaching Colorado.

SHOGREN: Many ranchers and hunters in Colorado and elsewhere don't want wolves because they eat livestock and game. Utah, South Dakota and parts of New England are other places biologists say wolves could do well if they had more time on the endangered species list. Once back on the landscape, these top predators could help restore ecosystems.

DANIEL ASHE: That's not the job of the Endangered Species Act.

SHOGREN: Dan Ashe directs the Fish and Wildlife Service. He says the Endangered Species Act is intended to prevent species from going extinct, not return them to every suitable place or restore ecosystems. And it's his agency that saved the wolf.

ASHE: The idea that the Fish and Wildlife Service has, you know, a desire to wring our hands and walk away from wolves could not be further from the truth.

SHOGREN: His agency's proposal includes a plan to keep Mexican wolves in the Southwest on the endangered species list and help them increase in numbers. Still, Ashe has heard the scientists' complaints. He will let an independent panel of scientists evaluate his proposal to de-list the gray wolf. No final decision on the gray wolf's fate is expected until the end of next year. Elizabeth Shogren. NPR News.

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