Congressional attacks on wolves ramp up

It wasn’t enough that earlier this year a narrow majority of lawmakers in Congress targeted wolves and other native carnivores for destruction on 76 million acres of our national wildlife refuges in Alaska. Now, they are expanding that fight to National Park Service lands in Alaska – another 20 million acres, where they want to allow land-and-shoot hunting of grizzly bears, trapping of black and grizzly bears with snares and steel-jawed traps, and hunting wolves, bears, and coyotes in their dens. But that’s not all. They are also seeking to eliminate any federal protections for threatened wolf populations in the lower 48 states. And this comes at the same time that the Trump administration has announced it will delist grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and turn over management to the states, which have each vowed to establish trophy-hunting seasons.

Collectively, these bills and administrative actions amount to a grab bag of opportunities for trophy hunters, allowing private citizens to kill bears and wolves in dramatically larger numbers, often on lands set aside specifically for wildlife, and by means that are often especially cruel and unsporting.

House Republicans have released a detailed draft of the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement (SHARE) Act, which would remove federal protections for wolves in the Great Lakes and Northern Rockies regions and put Congress in a position to cherry-pick this species from the list of threatened and endangered species. That prospective bill, which includes a raft of other odious provisions to loosen restrictions on the baiting of migratory waterfowl and to bar EPA restrictions on the use of lead sinkers, strips protections for wolves and bears on National Park Service (NPS) lands in Alaska. The House Interior Appropriations Committee also contains a similar rider to delist wolves, in case the backers of these various measures cannot achieve their goal through the other route.

This is nothing particularly new for the legislators involved, who have pushed this legislation for years on behalf of ranchers and trophy hunters. But Democrats in the Senate, with a major assist from House Democratic leaders, have consistently stymied those efforts, by hanging together and holding firm on the issue in spending and reauthorization bills. To their immense credit, House and Senate Democrats fiercely resisted efforts to open national wildlife refuge lands in Alaska to extreme predator-killing practices, and fell short in the Senate only because Republicans invoked a previously little-used legislative maneuver known as the Congressional Review Act, which bars the filibuster option that has long empowered more than 40 lawmakers, acting together, to block controversial legislation.

But two weeks ago, three key Democrats – Senators Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Ben Cardin of Maryland, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota – broke ranks with the Democratic defenders of wildlife and are signaling that they too are ready to go along with the Republicans’ bid to delist wolves. Those three Democrats are original cosponsors of the misleadingly-named Hunting Heritage and Environmental Legacy Protection (HELP) Wildlife Act. By doing so, they aren’t putting just wolves at risk, but providing a precedent for Congress to subvert administrative authority over endangered species listing and delisting actions and to eliminate judicial review of those administrative actions. It may lead to a species-by-species gutting of the Endangered Species Act if they make deals to allow Republicans to remove species in return for other provisions they are allowed to tack on to these larger packages of bills.

It’s an open secret that most state wildlife management agencies have long been captured by the trophy-hunting lobby. They consider themselves service agents for trophy hunters rather than protectors of wildlife. For example, state wildlife managers in Minnesota and Wisconsin, before The HSUS stopped them in the courts, allowed trophy hunters and trappers collectively to kill more than 500 wolves a year. Wisconsin wildlife managers even allow the use of hounds and bait to help kill the wolves, setting up a de facto animal fighting situation in the woods, when the packs of wolves confront the packs of dogs.

Alaska has been particularly notorious for a scorched earth policy toward America’s apex carnivores, allowing their killing by a wide variety of means, including the use of aircraft. Abetted and often directed by state politicians and political appointees, state wildlife managers dolled up their ruthless predator-control actions in the verbiage of scientific wildlife management. But their motivation was transparent: they wanted human hunters to shoot more moose and caribou, and didn’t like the wolves and bears competing with them. To paraphrase my old friend and ethical sportsman Ted Williams, hunters believe that every moose or caribou killed by a wolf is one less hunting license fee paid to the state. In short, there was a bloodthirsty element to their killing wildlife, but there was also a self-interested economic incentive.

But even these agencies have moments where they must pull back because of the mayhem they’ve created. Just last week, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced that it will stop its wasteful and ineffective cull of wolves in interior Alaska, near the border of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve.

State wildlife managers had become concerned that some hunters were not getting sufficient opportunity to kill members of the famed Fortymile caribou herd, because it had declined from 50,000 or so in the 1960s to just 6,000 by 1975. To reestablish herd numbers, the state gave hunters fewer permits, and aggressively persecuted wolves in experimental programs, including by shooting them from airplanes.

As a result, the caribou herd once again artificially rose to 50,000 members by 2014. But the state began to realize that it could not maintain its quasi-agricultural aspiration of an ever-expanding caribou herd. Ultimately, the Department of Fish and Game found—to the surprise of no seasoned observers—that the carrying capacity of the land had been exceeded. The state, at least in this study, concluded that localized wolf control backfires, in an ecological sense, and that caribou were starving.

NPS biologists who had been conducting their own concurrent, 22-year-long, radio-collar study of wolves in the nearby Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve found that wolf numbers even in the more meaningfully protected confines of the Preserve had been in rapid decline. Private agents and personnel from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game gunned down the vast majority of wolves who ranged beyond the invisible boundary and safety zone of the Preserve.

The NPS study found that humans, in their attempt to “manage” these complex natural systems, can only achieve short-term relief, and ultimately, killing wolves decreases their pack sizes and the number of breeders. The nearby, protected wolves simply increased their pup production to make up for the loss of those killed by wolf control. A recent study conducted in Canada reached the same conclusion.

The point is, the collusion between Republican politicians, captured state fish and wildlife agencies, trophy hunters, and mining interests pulling their strings are murder on America’s small, remaining populations of beloved native carnivores. The Democrats in the Senate had been, in so many cases, the last line of defense for these species, and The HSUS urges these lawmakers to stand tall and not trade away our legacy of federal protection for wildlife. That includes the strong standards of stewardship on our national parks and preserves and national wildlife refuges and, through the ESA, the shielding of vulnerable species from human attacks.

The consensus among serious-minded scientists is that carnivores moderate prey populations and make them more vigorous by removing the sicker, older, and weaker animals. Predator control schemes often kill the strongest, more robust members of populations and are unreliable, wasteful, and cruel, and fail in the long run to increase the abundance of the prey species that agencies treat like cash cows. Around the world, the massive decrease in top carnivores is changing our very planet. With trophy hunting and predator control schemes, humans are “dumbing down” ecosystems, making them less functional and biologically rich.

Call upon your members of Congress and urge them to vote “No” on any and all efforts to open our parks, preserves, and refuges to predator control, and to remove rare species, like wolves, from the list of threatened and endangered species.

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