Biden Should Put Science, Not Policy Positions, in the Driver’s Seat on Wolves and the Endangered Species Act

Wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

There has been substantial public furor over a widely-reported story that the Biden administration supports the Trump decision to end Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf. Biden’s position is being framed as a political flip-flop, since he himself said on the childrens’ show ‘Brave Wilderness’ that he objected to atrocities perpetrated against wolves, and even said “I’m in” when asked if he supported wolves. But Biden’s personal opinion shouldn’t matter. Endangered Species Act determinations must by law be solely based on the best available science, and any White House stance on wolves cannot legally intrude into the listing decisions. The real cause for concern – and where the media and public furor should focus – is on political meddling by employees inside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The cozy relationship between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service professionals and arch- game and fish agency officials from conservative and anti-carnivore states has led to multiple premature de-listings that served neither endangered species recovery nor the best interests of science-based decisionmaking. On wolves, the political pressure has historically been so extreme that western senators even passed legislation to override the Endangered Species Act and block federal protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. This anti-science legislation even baked in a provision that blocked the courts from judging whether this listing decision was legal or not.

The recent news story asserting the Biden administration’s support for ending wolf protections didn’t actually quote President Biden, nor any of his key appointees. Instead, it quotes the very same career official, who was the architect of wolf de-listing in the first place, concluding that he was right all along. He and other U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials testified in a 2013 hearing that removing Upper Midwest gray wolves from the Threatened Species list – and indeed throughout the continental U.S. – was completely justified. But the following year, a federal court rejected that argument, re-listing wolves in the Upper Midwest on the basis of violations of the ESA by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal government appealed, and the DC Circuit Court rejected their arguments again, keeping wolves on the list.

After taking office, the Biden administration promised to review (and possibly overturn) a number of specific Trump policies, including the de-listing of wolves. To date, no new reports have been issued, and no new analysis of the original de-listing decision has been released. This independent review of Trump’s wolf de-listing needs to move forward now, with great haste and scientific integrity.

Western Watersheds Project is a plaintiff in challenging the Trump administration’s wolf de-listing. We feel confident that the wolf will prevail in court, and the federal government will once again be compelled to protect the species. A win for wolves in court re-lists them everywhere in the lower 48 states, except in the Northern Rockies including all of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, and portions of Washington, Oregon, and Utah. In these states (and state fragments), wolves were already stripped of federal protections by a politically-motivated congressional rider, well prior to the Trump administration’s de-listing decision.

It may be that having a judge rule against the faulty science and shaky legal foundation of the Trump rule will provide a blueprint for the Biden administration to develop a science-based nationwide wolf policy of its own. But even a favorable ruling won’t solve the glaring conservation crisis that is developing in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, states where wolves were de-listed years ago.

These are the states where the wolves’ plight is most dire and federal protection is most needed. In the absence of the Endangered Species Act designation, the Idaho and Montana state legislatures recently enacted draconian anti-wolf measures designed to radically increase wolf killing and allow it to be virtually unregulated, with the explicit goal of decimating wolf populations.

Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe reversed his 2013 position that wolves were recovered nationwide by publishing a new op-ed castigating the anti-wolf management plans in Montana and Idaho, and calling for listing protections in these states. While Ashe worries that the “anti-wolf virus is almost certain to infect Wyoming and elsewhere,” the reality is that the Idaho and Montana wolf extinction plans are patterned after Wyoming’ policy, which was already the first such plan to authorize unregulated wolf killing across 85% of the state. Ashe personally approved the Wyoming plan and removed federal protections despite previous administrators’ decisions to reject this plan as an inadequate regulatory mechanism. We’re glad that now he’s objecting to these anti-wolf policies in Idaho and Montana, at least.

Meanwhile, seventy conservation and animal protection groups petitioned Secretary Haaland to protect all western gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act – particularly in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, where bloodthirsty state policies replace wildlife management tools (themselves difficult to justify in the case of a top predator whose populations are naturally regulated) with limitless wolf killing, often using otherwise-prohibited hunting techniqueslike hunting with night-vision goggles and shooting from helicopters. A coalition of 150 Tribes signed a Wolf Treatypleading for renewed wolf protections on the grounds of religious freedom. This provides an opportunity for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to heed the science and get wolves the federal protection they deserve.

President Biden has yet to nominate a Director to lead the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service after seven months in office. A congressionally confirmed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director, possessing the scientific credentials required to hold that office, seems to be necessary to whip the agency into shape and get it to stop dabbling in political appeasement and start following the best available science. It’s a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

In the meantime, perhaps the courts will reverse the Trump decision to de-list and wolves will be protected everywhere except in the rogue states of the Northern Rockies (and Alaska, where wolves are abundant). The Biden administration has multiple opportunities to implement a policy of its own, and keep its promise to let science rule the day. And for the states where early gray wolf de-listing led to an extinction agenda by state agencies, Biden’s Fish and Wildlife Service must close the special legal loophole that keeps wolves off the Endangered Species list in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and other areas in the Inland Northwest.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.