While it has long been a bit of a political football, the endangered species list serves a vital purpose and has authored many a success story.
The latest is that of gray wolves. Recent reports suggest that federal authorities are planning to remove endangered species protection for all gray wolves in the Lower 48 states, reflecting a remarkable comeback on the part of the animal. Once near extinction, gray wolf populations are now thriving, thanks to decades of careful management and due protection.
Just 18 years ago, wolves were reintroduced to the Western United States, and the population has since grown to number in the thousands. It's an example of the best-laid intentions combining with the best-laid plans to form a desired outcome, an example of humankind's careful stewardship of the environment.
As with any stewardship, one of the most important factors is an awareness of when it is time to loosen the reins. As the gray wolf begins to thrive, the federal government is about to properly acknowledge the harm that can come with a burgeoning wolf population. State officials and ranchers throughout the Rocky Mountain region long have complained about the loss of livestock due to the predator, and gray wolves are now legally hunted in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.
With the lifting of federal endangered species status, it will be up to individual states to determine which protections are necessary for their region's particular wolf population. In the Pacific Northwest, as well as in Northern California, populations are still small and struggling to become established, and we urge state officials to remain cautious in lifting protections for the animal.
Still, the scenario emphasizes the importance of the endangered species list.
The gray wolf long has been a symbol of the American West, evoking images of the Old West and its expanse of open, wild country. But as the West became populated, government-subsidized bounties on wolves nearly wiped out the species by the 1930s. As humans became more aware of the environment and the importance of balanced ecosystems, the cost of wiping out a species became more apparent. Predators can serve an important role in limiting other species that serve as nuisances.
Consider the fate of the American bald eagle. The very symbol of our nation was nearly wiped out before being placed on the endangered list in 1967. Through careful management, the majestic bird made an epic recovery, to the point that it was removed from the list in 2007.
Such management can and should balance the needs of the environment with economic and social concerns. There's no one-size-fits-all solution, so be prepared for more rounds of political and legal dances with wolves.
Upon hearing of the pending decision regarding the gray wolf, Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, told the Los Angeles Times that the move will be met with numerous legal challenges.
On the other side of the debate, a 2011 defense appropriations bill in Congress included language buried within it that would direct the U.S. Interior Secretary to remove wolves in the Rocky Mountain region from the endangered list. For now, we'll just point out that a defense appropriations bill is not the proper place to legislate endangered species protections.
Regardless of where the dancing eventually leads, the fact is that gray wolves are making a comeback. That is a success story in any book.