A look back at the circuitous, bloody history of attempts to remove wolves from the Endangered Species Act.

gray wolf

Wolves are in the Trump administration’s crosshairs, and it’s déjà vu all over again.

This week David Bernhardt, acting secretary of the Department of the Interior and former oil-industry lobbyist, announced a plan to remove gray wolves (Canis lupus) from the protection of the Endangered Species Act throughout the lower 48 states.

If finalized the long-rumored move would put an end to wolf recovery in the contiguous United States and open up many wolf populations to hunting, removal and expanded persecution by ranchers and farmers.

Most scientists and conservation groups don’t agree that wolves have reached a sustainable population level or have recovered after being nearly eradicated in the early 20th century. Wolves once roamed across the country, and today there are only about 5,000 of them in eight states. Yet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which reports to Bernhardt, positioned this as a success story.

“Recovery of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one of our nation’s great conservation successes,” the Service said in a statement that was made available to the media on request but not published on their website. The agency said wolves were now “joining other cherished species, such as the bald eagle, that have been brought back from the brink with the help of the ESA.”

The wording echoes back to what we heard during earlier attempts to remove wolves from the Endangered Species Act.

“Like other iconic species such as the whooping crane, the brown pelican, and the bald eagle, the recovery of the gray wolf is another success story of the Endangered Species Act,” then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said in 2011 during what I recall was a particularly brief, tense press conference announcing the removal of protection from wolves in the northern Rockies and the western Great Lakes.

We heard much the same thing two years later from Dan Ashe, then-director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, who presided over a 2013 push to remove all wolves from the Endangered Species Act. “To see a species rebound from a century-long period of human persecution to flourish on the landscape again is something we’re all extraordinarily lucky to witness in our lifetimes,” Ashe said during another press conference that I covered. “Make no mistake about it we believe the recovery of the gray wolf is one of the most remarkable successes in the history of wildlife conservation.”

Ironically, what wasn’t successful was the 2013 delisting proposal — like many attempts before it. In 2014 a study commissioned by the Fish and Wildlife Service itself found that the delisting ruling did not represent the “best available science” on wolf conservation. The proposal was ultimately not approved.

But many wolves still lost protection. Over the past 12 years wolf populations in several states have lost and regained protection over and over again, in what felt like an endless yo-yo of legal and legislative aerobics.

Honestly, covering this as a journalist wasn’t easy. Protections came and went, and it seemed as though every month brought a new chapter in the story. It felt like a real-world version of Groundhog Day, where the same story kept replaying itself over and over again…only the wolves that died during this oft-repeating saga didn’t get to wake up again the next morning.

And many wolves — more than 1,000 of them — did die. During the times when wolves were unprotected, the country saw the return of rampant wolf hunting, which continues to this day. In one of the most telling examples, Idaho residents in 2009 could sign up for wolf-hunting permits for the bargain-basement price of just $11.75.

This “low-low, every wolf must go” pricing is actually completely antithetical to how we as a nation have valued wolf conservation. The United States has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on wolf protection since 1975. The most recent wolf-related expenditures aren’t available — the Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to publish a rundown of annual expenditures related to the Endangered Species Act, but still hasn’t released numbers for the 2017 fiscal year— but the totals from the previous few years are quite telling. Between 2012 and 2016 alone the federal and state governments spent a total of $29,055,537 million on wolf conservation — about $5,800 for each of the estimated 5,000 gray wolves currently living in the lower 48 states.

That’s a lot of money, but wolves still aren’t recovered, despite the Fish and Wildlife Service claims. Their populations are still too scattered and often too small. They still face numerous threats, mostly from humans, and also from state governments that don’t do a very good job managing them (I’m looking at you Idaho, where one official declared his desire to see the species eradicated from the state). And there’s still too much bloodlust on the land from ranchers who fear wolves and hunters who are itching for the opportunity to claim their trophies. Those threats aren’t going away any time soon; meanwhile, if the Trump administration and its backers get their way, we could lose the opportunities for wolves to continue to expand their range and population numbers.

What makes this new proposal any different from the ones that came before it? For one thing wolf populations haven’t changed all that much since the last attempt to delist them a few years ago, nor have the risks to their recovery. More importantly, the Trump administration is packed to the rafters with opponents of the Endangered Species Act, Bernhard being at the top of the list. The acting secretary, who’s been called a “walking conflict of interest,” has a long history of lobbying against endangered species protections. At Interior, he helped craft the Trump administration’s plan to gut the Endangered Species Act and make regulations more industry-friendly. If they can’t accomplish that goal whole cloth, they’ll be happy chipping away at the protections for individual species — starting with gray wolves.

Bernhardt’s announcement this week isn’t final, so wolves aren’t on the chopping block quite yet. The proposed rule must still be published in the Federal Register, and that will kick off a public comment period — which is sure to be contentious. Meanwhile lawsuits and protests have already been announced and held (including some from the Center for Biological Diversity, publishers of The Revelator), and that’s sure to continue for months to come.

Ironically enough it’s some of Ashe’s words from that 2013 press conference that I find most resonant today. “The political rhetoric, the litigation and wrangling that we have seen in recent times around wolf management underscore how unlikely this recovery was, how severely the deck was stacked against wolves,” he said. That “recovery” that Ashe proclaimed six years ago wasn’t exactly true, and the litigation actually helped to save wolves, but the deck remains stacked. That’s the part of this story that never seems to end.

UPDATE: The official announcement about wolf delisting can be found here, and public comments are now being accepted through May 14.

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John R. Platt

is the editor of The Revelator. An award-winning environmental journalist, his work has appeared in Scientific American, Audubon, Motherboard, and numerous other magazines and publications. His “Extinction Countdown” column has run continuously since 2004 and has covered news and science related to more than 1,000 endangered species. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. John lives on the outskirts of Portland, Ore., where he finds himself surrounded by animals and cartoonists.