POWELL — On Friday, President Donald Trump’s administration published its intent to remove Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the lower 48 states. That triggered a 60- day review by a team of scientists and opening the proposal to public comment in the Federal Register.
“We propose this action because the best available scientific and commercial information indicates that the currently listed entities do not meet the definitions of a threatened species or endangered species under the [Endangered Species] Act due to recovery,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s notice in the federal register states.
Environmental groups consider delisting the species a halt to progress made to reestablish wolves, which brought them back from the brink.
“Without the protections afforded by the Endangered Species Act, gray wolves would never have recovered in the places where they are now,” said Leda Huta, executive director of the Endangered Species Coalition. “By removing protections across the country, the Trump administration is essentially abandoning all efforts to restore this iconic American species to millions of acres of wild habitat.”
Multiple environmental groups have filed their intent to seek legal review. It would follow a similar process to what has happened with grizzlies after recent federal delisting rules.
“We’ve sued Trump 111 times, and we’re nowhere near finished,” the Center for Biological Diversity brags on its website.
The main concern for environmental groups is the new delisting rule will lead to hunting.
When the Yellowstone area’s grizzly bears were delisted in 2017, the Game and Fish set a hunting season, with an overall limit not to exceed 22 bears, after multiple scoping meetings with the public and discussion and approval by the commission. Several entities and private citizens sued the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop the hunts. A federal judge in Montana ordered that the species once again be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, ending plans for the hunt.
The delisting was overturned partially based on a ruling from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the federal government can’t delist distinct population segments of wolves — specifically taking issue with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s attempt to remove protections for wolves in the Great Lakes area in and around Michigan.
In a 2017 release celebrating that appellate court ruling, the Center of Biological Diversity’s Noah Greenwald said that wolves were “still missing from more than 90 percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states, and both the Endangered Species Act and common sense tell us we can’t ignore that loss.” For instance, the center said that there was suitable habitat but no wolves in the southern Rocky Mountains.
The gray wolf was delisted in Wyoming in 2017, and hunting for the species resumed with conservative quotas. The hunts have now existed for two seasons, unchallenged in court.
State officials are appealing last year’s ruling on grizzlies and may find a delisting of wolves helpful in their argument. They’ve received a copy of the federal government’s new wolf delisting proposal and are reviewing it now, said Dan Thompson, large carnivore program manager for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. In the meantime, predator conflicts between carnivores and people continue to occur.
Primary conflicts requiring management actions by Game and Fish and Wildlife Services employees for the gray wolf and grizzly bear is livestock depredation, Thompson said in an interview Friday. Grizzlies are spreading beyond biologically and socially suitable habitat, known as the demographic monitoring area (DMA), often wandering into conflict in agricultural areas. Black bear and mountain lion conflicts are a more scattered, lesser threat, but do happen across the state. The Game and Fish pays compensation for the dead livestock.
Last year, a grizzly sow and two cubs passed through the Willwood area along the Shoshone River, south of Powell, and made it to an agricultural area southwest of Byron in Big Horn County. It was the furthest east grizzlies have been recorded since they were listed as endangered species more than 40 years ago. They were trapped by the Game and Fish and (after consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) euthanized considering a pattern of feeding on livestock and habituation to people despite previously being relocated to Teton County.
“[Grizzly bears] can make a living in the area, but feeding on livestock doesn’t have a long lifetime potential,” Thompson said.
It’s well documented that the Heart Mountain area, with its growing residential area, is grizzly territory.
Wolves have already been reported in the Bighorn Mountain Range and grizzlies may soon follow, despite efforts to stop them.
Wildlife managers celebrate the fact that previously threatened species are now considered recovered within suitable habitat, but they aren’t about to assist those predators moving into areas ripe with conflicts.
“There’s too much human activity in the Bighorns and we already have an area that we feel is large enough for them [grizzlies] to be biologically recovered in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem,” Thompson said. “That’s where we’re promoting their longterm viability.”
Northwest Wyoming’s large carnivores once inhabited most of the continental U.S. It was suitable habitat prior to mass settling of humans in the 16th and 17th centuries. But you don’t want large predators to consider their traditional range their homes, Thompson said.
“Some people don’t like it one way or the other, but that’s why we have a demarcation line,” he said.
Thompson said it’s unrealistic to think predators should be brought back to historic ranges; the landscape has changed too much over the past few centuries.
As the carrying capacity of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is oversaturated and the species fan out, further from suitable habitat, education follows, Thompson said. “The foundation for large carnivore management is education and outreach.”
Game and Fish biologists try to do more face-to-face education efforts to ensure ranchers and residents understand both the inherent dangers and ways to discourage conflicts.