|Photo of Yellowstone wolf via NPS|
The Endangered Species Act faces a concerted attack. Attackers claim it’s time to “modernize” the ESA. They shout they’re tired of having wildlife perpetually protected by the federal government. They demand that their states have more power to manage endangered or threatened species.
One attack occurred in June of 2015 when Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, as chairman of the Western Governors' Association, launched an initiative to examine the ESA and recommend changes to Congress. The western governors hope that ESA reforms will be easier to swallow if coming from a state-led movement rather than from Congress.
This movement to allow states to call the shots ignores two important facts. First, animals now protected by the ESA became endangered or threatened while under state management. Second, animals can’t see the political boundaries that mark the border between protection and death.
The treatment of wolves in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho (all members of the Western Governors Association) exemplifies this.
Since wolves were returned to state management in 2011, Idaho has enacted extermination programs as vicious as those that originally landed their wolves under ESA protection. This includes allocating up to $2 million from Idaho taxpayers over a span of five years to eradicate wolves. It includes hiring federal gunners to shoot wolves from helicopters. This killing spree comes after the US Fish and Wildlife Service spent millions of federal tax dollars to increase Idaho’s wolf population. And since these wolves are no longer protected under the ESA, the federal government can’t stop the slaughter.
In Wyoming once wolves were placed under state management in 2012, so many were shot that conservation organizations realized Wyoming’s plan was not to conserve wolves; it was to eradicate them. They could be killed almost anytime, anywhere, and for any—or no—reason. Some of the wolves shot had unknowingly crossed the invisible line between protected Yellowstone National Park and Wyoming’s free-fire zone. After a fierce court battle, wolves were returned to ESA protection in 2014.
But Wyoming wolves are targets again. A U.S. Appeals court has ruled that the state’s wolf management plan is acceptable. Now, animals once worth protecting can be shot as vermin in 85% of the state. In the rest of Wyoming—mostly just outside Yellowstone—wolves are not vermin; they are trophies to take.
Yellowstone wolves face a similar fate when they leave the park’s protection and follow elk north into Montana. Right on the border of Yellowstone, Montana has two wolf hunting units in which a total of at least four wolves will die next hunting season.
Instead of “modernizing” and letting states call the shots, the ESA should remain federally controlled. Based on what happened to wolves, allowing states more control is a death sentence for the same animals the ESA once protected. The ESA should also be fully funded. Though shortchanged since inception, the ESA has still prevented the extinction of 99 percent of species under its protection and put hundreds more on the road to recovery. Just think what the ESA could do if politicians funded it.
Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wildlands. He lives near Yellowstone’s north gate and is just finishing his new book, Deep into Yellowstone: A Year’s Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy. He is the author of the Amazon bestseller In the Temple of Wolves. Available as eBook or paperback. Or as a signed copy from Rick.