The Physics Police

The Physics Police

Monday, October 28, 2013

Protecting the Gray Wolf

I care about saving endangered species. A lot. Protecting biodiversity is imperative to human survival. That's why one of my favorite laws is the Endangered Species Act. This law aims to "halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction, whatever the cost." I dare say signing this bad-ass law was the best thing Richard Nixon ever did.

Here's how it works. When a species is listed as endangered, a recovery plan is created. This plan describes objective, measurable criteria to tell how well a species is recovering. The end goal is that species are successfully recovered and delisted.

When a species gets delisted, it's time to break out the champagne. Delisting is a declaration that we've successfully saved a species from the brink of extinction! This is not to make light of the serious business of continuing to protect all species, especially those recently delisted. Rather, it's an opportunity to show the Fish and Wildlife Service some well-deserved appreciation.

Recovery of the Gray Wolf is a wonderful yet complex example of such success. There are three distinct populations of wolves in the United States.

I will refer to the yellow areas as Great Lakes and Rocky Mountains, and to the blue area as Southwest.

The Great Lakes population was first listed as endangered in 1967, followed by the Rocky Mountain population in 1973, and finally the Southwest population in 1976.

In 1978, the whole species was listed as endangered, since each of its subspecies populations were also listed as endangered. Makes sense, right? If all the subspecies of Gray Wolves are endangered, then the whole species of Gray Wolves is endangered, too.

Well, technically, this is not how the Endangered Species Act is supposed to work. The Gray Wolf, as a whole species, is not endangered, given its abundance across the whole arctic range! So, it shouldn't be listed as endangered, just because the subspecies which happen to lie in the United States are, themselves, threatened.

By 2012, both yellow populations had recovered by the measures described in their respective recovery plans. Accordingly, they were delisted. Champagne time! But, since the majority of subspecies of Gray Wolf are now delisted, it makes even less sense to keep the species, as a whole, on the list. Taxonomical specificity is important to prevent exemptions, which nobody wants.

So, in June of 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule to delist the species, on the whole, while maintaining the endangered status of the Southwest population. Sounds reasonable, right?

Well, not according to Richard Steiner, who is adamant that wolves should remain on the endangered species list. He acknowledges the restoration of those yellow populations. But he tells his readers "this success is about to be undone" by the proposed rule.

This demonstrates a lack of understanding of how the Endangered Species Act is supposed to work. Remember that, to the end of species recovery, delisting is the goal. A baseball player's running of the bases is not undone when he reaches home plate and goes back to the dugout.

Steiner talks about the "horror of wolves ... being caught in traps and snares" as though such illegal activity would be condoned by the proposed rule. It most certainly would not. In the yellow regions, states are already in full control.
Across the subspecies' range any legal take is regulated by provincial or state law to maintain sustainable wolf populations...
Steiner says that "people tend to fear and hate that which they don't understand", which is true. That's why he confuses his readers with emotionally compelling non-arguments rather than explain the real reasons for delisting. If you don't know why the Gray Wolf species is being delisted, it sounds scary!

Leda Huta thinks that the proposed rule means the Fish and Wildlife Services are abandoning Gray Wolves. They aren't. Under the proposed rule, they would continue to protect the Southwest endangered population. The proposed rule does not change the status of the yellow populations.

Delisting does not "turn the clock back", as Huta claims. It marks our progress forward.

Hunta also mentions how inhumane trapping can be. I dislike trapping for this reason. There are better methods for population management. But this isn't an argument against delisting. It's an argument for humane management! It's also an issue for states to decide on their own.

Megan Gannon posted on LiveScience that Gray Wolves may lose endangered status. In this headline, the verb is the problem. Wolves lose nothing by our taxonomical classification. Federal protections for the three distinct populations are not being changed.

However, some people believe wolves should be reintroduced to Colorado, Utah, and California. This would expand their territory, and be super awesome. I want this to happen. Sadly, delisting the Gray Wolf on the species level might make this more difficult. Does that tempt me to dislike the proposed rule? Sure, it's tempting.

That's where integrity comes in. The original classification on the species level was a mistake. This taxonomical mistake needs to be corrected. My love for wolves doesn't trick me into taxonomical dishonesty. Furthermore, it's clearly not worth it to abuse the Endangered Species Act to support one's political viewpoint. For the law to remain respected and effective, it must not be abused.

I don't need to condone Steiner's emotional non-arguments, or his slight-of-hand tricks of misinformation in order to be a good environmentalist.

My love for wolves goes back to childhood, when my pretend Native American name was Black Eagle Wolf. This love doesn't make Leda Huta's dishonest claims any more true.

So I show appreciation for the hard work done by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

I'm glad the Gray Wolf is being delisted and will continue to roam these United States.

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