April 15, 2009
Delisting isn’t based on sound science
BY KEN FISCHMAN, Ph.D. AND NANCY GILLIAM, Ph.D.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar recently ruled that wolves be removed from the Endangered Species Act protected list.
We do not understand how he could have given this complex issue the thorough review it deserved in six weeks. Sadly, we suspect that this is yet another in a long history of political decisions about wolves, and not the scientific one that we had hoped for from this new administration.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims that the wolves have made a significant comeback, and that a population of 1,500 wolves in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana will ensure their continued viability. Their number is not a biological reality, but a bureaucratic concept. In reality, there are three distinct populations, each numbering in the hundreds.
Ed Bangs, the wildlife service wolf coordinator, claimed that he had new evidence of genetic connection between distant wolf populations because, in 11 years, a few wolves have wandered between Yellowstone and Central Idaho. What counts biologically is not that a few lone wolves have made long journeys, but whether they have contributed genes to the other populations.
Bridgett vonHoldt from UCLA and her colleagues, in their recent study of the genetics of 500 wolves, has demonstrated that there is no gene flow between these three geographically distinct populations.
Scientists tell us that by 2050, from one third to one half of all species will go extinct due to climate change and habitat loss. Those already on the brink are likely to disappear first.
The low number of wolves living in the Rockies now leaves them vulnerable to inbreeding and environmental challenges.
With populations segregated, predicted habitat changes from warming temperatures are a further threat. We already are seeing habitat loss because of increased acreage burned in forest fires, increased tree mortality caused by disease and increased severe weather patterns.
The principles of conservation biology, the science that deals with extinction and viability of wild animals, also indicate that present numbers of wolves in the Rockies are too low. Michael Soule, the dean of conservation biology, has estimated that biologically viable populations would be “several thousand or larger.”
Our point is not that the wolves should never be delisted, but that doing so at this time would be premature. In a manner of speaking, the wolves are not yet out of the woods.
We do not have to guess at the consequences of premature delisting. In January, when the Bush administration attempted to delist wolves, they were left unprotected for three months until a federal judge issued an injunction. During that time, 132 wolves were killed. At that rate, the entire Northern Rockies wolf population could go extinct in three years.
The big, unanswered questions are what is the minimum biologically viable population for wolves, and how many wolves are necessary to ensure gene flow between the various populations and to avoid the consequences of inbreeding, such as loss of vigor, birth defects and decreased survivability of pups.
President Obama has been promising us a science-based approach to such issues. In fact, the president stated recently during his stem-cell research signing, “É We make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.” This is what we would like to happen with respect to wolves.
We were signatories of a letter to Salazar from Northern Rockies groups urging him to convene an expert panel of non-governmental scientists, who would examine the wolf issues.
Wolves have been a matter of bitter contention in the West. Science-based conclusions of a panel of experts may offer a way out of this dilemma, if both sides could be persuaded to accept its conclusions. If the Salazar decision is left to stand, it is certain that these issues will be dragged into court again.
Ken Fischman is spokesman for the Northern Rockies Wolf Group and Nancy Gilliam is director, Model Forest Policy Program. Both are from Sandpoint.