IT WAS NOT just human candidates such as Joe Biden and Donald Trump who were on the ballot on November 3rd: so were wolves. Coloradans narrowly approved a measure to reintroduce grey wolves to the state by 2023. This latest instalment in America’s wolf wars follows a decision by the Trump administration on October 29th to remove the grey wolf from the country’s endangered-species list. That sounds like a victory for conservation, signalling that wolves no longer need government help to thrive in the wild. Yet the decision has riled conservationists, and pitted them against the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the agency responsible for enforcing the country’s Endangered Species Act (ESA), which protects vulnerable animals. Why has the decision raised hackles among scientists?
The USFWS removed grey wolves from the list on the basis that a stable population exists in the Western Great Lakes (see map). That is true. The region is home to nearly two-thirds of the roughly 6,000 wolves estimated to inhabit the Lower 48 states. Delisting one group of wolves is possible—the large population of nearly 2,000 wolves that lives in the Northern Rocky Mountains was delisted by Congress in 2011—but often litigious. The Trump administration’s rule asserts that wolves in Minnesota are not so different from those in Wyoming, for example, and so should be treated alike. But a new paper from a group of researchers, published in BioScience, argues that this conclusion is a “minimalist” interpretation of the ESA that fails to take history, biodiversity and future threats into account.
Start with history. Grey wolves used to roam most of North America. As colonists moved west in the 19th century, wolves became a kind of public enemy. They preyed on cattle and livestock, threatening human food and livelihoods. In response, wolves were systematically hunted down and killed. They were nearly eradicated from the contiguous United States by the middle of the 20th century. The scope of grey wolves’ historic range is at the centre of conservationists’ concerns about their recent delisting. The authors argue that the stable population in the Great Lakes, a small pocket of the species’ historic range, is not enough to declare that the grey wolf has recovered and is safe from extinction.
Delisting wolves based on the success of one population also has implications for the biodiversity of the species. Animals in different geographic regions often exhibit different physical traits or behaviours, such as black fur instead of grey, or a dietary preference for salmon over elk. Such differences can help them adapt to changing environments. This “genetic variability”, the authors argue, will become especially important as wolves navigate habitats changed by global warming.
Without federal help, some states are taking matters into their own hands—and starting local wolf wars of their own. The campaign in Colorado was contentious. Urbanites in cities such as Denver and Boulder out-voted ranchers on the state’s Western Slope, who will be much more likely to come into contact with the wolves when they arrive. The measure was inspired by a similar undertaking in the Rockies in the 1990s.
The removal of the wolves from the endangered-species list reflects the USFWS’s approach to conservation under Mr Trump, which has prioritised economics more than previous administrations. Greater emphasis, for example, is placed on how bigger wolf populations will affect the ranching industry. The paper’s authors suggest that a more progressive administration might focus on protecting threatened and endangered species across their historic ranges. On the campaign trail Mr Biden talked up his commitment to the environment and biodiversity. Conservationists will hope that he has not been crying wolf.