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Is the gray wolf actually endangered?

North American forests looked very different 300 years ago.

And it’s not just the rise of infrastructure – it’s the purposeful decline of many natural predators.

Before European colonists came to America, the gray wolf population looked something like this:

looked something like this. But by the 1930s, that vast, thriving

population looked more like this. In a matter of a few decades European

settlers had trapped, poisoned, and shot the gray wolf nearly out of existence in

the lower 48. Today, that map looks a little more like this.

The gray wolf has been on the endangered species list since 1974 and

those decades of restoration efforts have recovered the population to a few

key locations, though nowhere near where it used to be.

But in 2019 the Fish and Wildlife Service filed this – It's a proposal to remove the animal from the

endangered species list nationwide, arguing that the gray wolf is no longer

threatened. A hundred scientists responded with a letter, urging the Fish

and Wildlife Service to rescind the proposal saying, "it's way too soon."

So, when are we done protecting the gray wolf?

In 1973 President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act. It allows the

Fish & Wildlife Service to protect certain species from extinction by

limiting hunting, trapping, and killing. When the government decides that a

species is sufficiently recovered, they're removed from the endangered

species list or "delisted" and they release management of the species back

to the States. Unsurprisingly this is a lot more

complicated than it sounds.

The federal government is pretty efficient at

listing species when it's the right thing to do

but delisting that's different.

This is John Vucetich who studies wildlife ecology at Michigan Tech University.

In the entire 40-plus years of the

Endangered Species Act there have only been in the neighborhood of a dozen

delistings. We're far less experienced at that.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has tried to delist the gray wolf in certain states before,

and was met with a bunch of lawsuits from conservationists and environmental groups.

The reason it's so challenging to delist an animal like the gray wolf

lies in the law itself.

The easy way to understand the obligations of the Endangered Species

Act is that a species is recovered and no longer requires federal protection

when it's no longer at risk of extinction.

So let's zoom out on that map from earlier with this in mind.

The gray wolf is not at risk of extinction.

There have always been a whole bunch of wolves in Canada and in Russia. So if we lost

every single wolf in all of the United States even Alaska

they're not at risk of extinction.

But the thing is the Endangered Species Act is narrower than that.

The legal definition of an endangered species is "one that is at

risk of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range."

This is the phrase that has been heavily debated in court over the gray wolf.

Because while somewhere around 6,000 wolves may roam here many more used to roam here.

Meaning the animal only exists in about 15% of its former range.

So in order to delist the gray wolf we have to decide if that 15% is enough.

The Endangered Species Act isn't clear on how to define "range."

When it comes to the gray wolf, the Fish and Wildlife Service argues that the law could mean

"current range." They're satisfied with that 15%, especially because of how tough

it would be to reintroduce the wolf to all places it used to roam.

Many sections of their former range are no longer suitable due to human encroachment.

And in places where wolves do coexist with people living alongside them is challenging.

I mean, wolves are happy to kill a cow or sheep if that's what it

needs to do in order to live and get by, and of course that's tough – or can be

tough – for the livestock owner.

Regardless, environmentalists interpret this law differently.

They argue that the wolves range should be interpreted

historically, and that until it's recovered in most of its historic

territory it should fall into the protections of the Endangered Species Act

It's this tension the law that makes delisting hard to figure out.

Still, wolves have been successfully removed from the endangered species list

in Idaho in Montana in 2011 and in Wyoming in 2017.

The states are now in charge of their management and making sure

they retain a certain population. So in Idaho

for example, it's legal to hunt wolves with a permit but the state has promised

to keep the population at or over 15 packs. Under Idaho's law wolves do stay

alive, but they don't have room to branch out to new or historic territories where

they might thrive, which is likely what will happen if they're delisted across

the U.S. The current population will remain stable, but the wolves will only

exist where they are right now – not where they could be or have been.

The endangered species act is pretty clear that when a species is endangered it does not

matter if we can find why that species is valuable or not. The species is

valuable – according to the Endangered Species Act – just because.

but figuring on a balance between protecting a species and thriving alongside them is tough –

especially when that species is a long-hated predator.