Gray Wolves No Longer Endangered?

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is under constant political pressure by those who believe that it places more emphasis on protecting plants & animals than on encouraging property development & economic gains. (If you read my piece on Ecosystems Services, you can probably figure out my position in this debate)

With that said, every now and then, we hear a success story about the return of a species from the brink of extinction thanks to the ESA that impresses even the most hardened cynics. The survival of the gray wolf in the Northern Rockies is just such a success story.

In the beginning of the 20th century, gray wolves were seeing their habitat destroyed and encroached upon by humans. These humans brought with them farm animals like sheep and chickens that seemed like easy prey to the natural predatorial instincts of wolves. Eventually, humans began hunting wolves in an effort to diminish their population and protect the farm animals.

The gray wolf population became so low that it appeared the species was going to become extinct. As a result, the wolf was placed on the Endangered Species List and its habitat underwent the legal protection that comes with this placement. In addition, the U.S. Department of Interior began plans for reintroducing displaced wolf populations back into their natural habitat.

Reintroduction of a species into a habitat where its numbers have dwindled is a controversial act. In the case of the gray wolf, it was especially controversial. The area where the wolves would be introduced is now home to thousands of acres of cattle ranches. The ranchers did not appreciate natural predators being parachuted onto their land. As a compromise, Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental organization, agreed to reimburse cattle ranchers for any of their animals that were killed or harmed by the wolf reintroduction.

After a 13-year restoration effort, the gray wolf populations have reached a sustainable level. Unfortunately, the threats to this species still exist. In fact, it could be argued that taking them off the Endangered Species List will put them at high risk to become endangered again. However, the ESA is meant to serve as a safety net, not a perpetual force field. Hopefully all parties involved will make a new effort to work together for a shared interest in maintaining a natural balance.

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