The reintroduction of gray wolves into the Lower 48 has to be considered one of the major conservation success stories of recent times. Something on the order of 6,000 of the amazing predators are thriving in the Northern Rockies and upper Great Lakes, and they've been delisted as a federally protected species in several states as a result.
But should federal protections be lifted entirely across the Lower 48 for the gray wolf so the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service can shift its attention to the less successful recovery of the Mexican wolf in the Southwest, as the agency has proposed?
We think the idea has merit, although we realize it's highly controversial — not only with activists who advocate on behalf of wolf recovery but some biologists as well. At a public hearing earlier this month at the Paramount Theatre in Denver, hosted by Fish & Wildlife, more than 350 wolf advocates were on hand to express their dismay.
They believe the wolves should remain listed as an endangered species mainly for two reasons. First, they say the wolf should be protected until it is restored in other states as well, including Colorado, noting that the wolf once roamed vast regions of the United States. And secondly, they don't trust state wildlife officials where the wolf populations are sustainable to protect them from another localized extinction.
Let's deal with the second concern first. All of the states where the wolf now roams, including those where controlled hunts are permitted, are committed to maintaining viable populations. The idea that they would welcome dangerously dwindling wolf numbers isn't credible. Nor would Fish & Wildlife — which pushed reintroduction in the first place — ignore that development.
As for expanding the range of the wolf, we have nothing against it in principle. If wolves migrate into Colorado and begin to take hold, for example, we would want them to survive and would expect the state to work to see that this occurs.
“In Oregon and Washington, which have small but rapidly growing wolf populations, the animals remained protected under state laws even after federal protections were lifted in portions of the two states,” The Associated Press reported earlier this year. So it appears wolves can still spread without federal protection.
Meanwhile, however, it isn't realistic to expect wolf recovery in many states where it once lived, even if they were once part of its historic range.