Yesterday Deputy Interior Secretary Lynn Scarlett announced the intentions of the Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove the gray wolf from protection of the Endangered Species Act in the Western Great Lakes region and portions of the Northern Rocky Mountains. Following legal procedures, the USFWS will post the Final Rule in the Federal Registry next week and then 30 days thereafter, the rule takes effect.

The process of attempting to get the wolf delisted has been a confusing mess, mired in lawsuits, twisted out of shape by frustrating and puzzling rulings by judges and just as disturbing was the direction or seemingly lack thereof, the Feds took in dealing with the issue.

When looking at the whole picture of wolf delisting that includes both the Western Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains regions, according to court rulings there were three distinct issues the Feds had to address in order for the courts to be satisfied (perhaps) and allow delisting – Wyoming’s wolf management plan, genetic connectivity/exchange and the USFWS being able to create a Distinct Population Segment and delist a species simultaneously. Let’s address them one at a time.

Create and Delist

This past September 2008, in a federal court in the District of Columbia, Judge Paul Friedman told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that because the Endangered Species Act was unclear about the use and definition of Distinct Population Segment, he felt the Service did not have the legal authority to create a DPS while simultaneously changing the status of the species recognized within that DPS.

Consequently and for no other obvious reason, Judge Friedman ordered the wolf placed back under federal protection and required the Service to provide a better explanation of the use of DPS.

What is expected to be part of the Final Rule next week is a complete history of the Service’s use of Distinct Population Segments. The preliminary information I have indicates several pages of analysis and history of DPS. Included in that explanation will be examples of other species where the Service created and delisted or changed status of certain species. Examples of that are the grizzly bear, Colombian whitetail deer, brown pelican, American crocodile, among others.

We can only assume this will satisfy the courts.

Wyoming, the Lone Wolf

Further out west, on February 27, 2008, the USFWS published its Final Rule and officially removed the Northern Rocky Mountains population of gray wolves from the protected species list of the Endangered Species Act. It was short lived as was expected. On July 18, 2008, Judge Donald Molloy issued a preliminary injunction placing the gray wolf back under protection of the federal government.

One of the two issues expressed by Judge Molloy was that Wyoming’s Wolf Management Plan, approved by the state and approved by the feds, was inadequate to sustain a viable wolf population.

With the recent announcement to delist the wolf, Wyoming has been left out of the delisting process. This is how the USFWS handled the Wyoming wolf management plans they had approved of previously.

In light of the July 18, 2008, U.S. District Court order, we reexamined Wyoming law, its management plans and implementing regulations, and now determine they are not adequate regulatory mechanisms for the purposes of the Act.

Genetic Connectivity

The second issue Judge Molloy had difficulty dealing with is known as genetic connectivity or genetic exchange. This is when wolves from one area disburse into the areas of other wolves and undertake breeding, believed by some to be essential to the long term sustainability of a wolf population.

The preliminary information I have indicates that the Feds will offer a lengthy explanation about what role genetic exchange/connectivity had in the scientific approach to wolf recovery. In their explanation they will tell us that genetic exchange was discussed and that the evolution of the importance of genetic exchange changes very little from 1987 to present. They also intend to show that from the beginning, the Service has said all along that they believed genetic exchange would be verified by showing natural dispersal of the animals and if that wasn’t occurring then they would resort to man-assisted dispersal.

We explicitly stated the required genetic exchange could occur by natural means or by human-assisted migration management and that dispersal of wolves between recovery areas was evidence of that genetic exchange (Service et al. 1994, Appendix 8, 9).

The Final Rule to be published more than likely will reaffirm the Feds’ commitment to ensuring genetic exchange.

Development of the Service’s recovery goal clearly recognized that the key to wolf recovery was establishing a viable demographically and genetically diverse wolf population in the core recovery areas of the NRM. We would ensure its future connectivity by promoting natural dispersal and genetic connectivity between the core recovery segments and/or by human-assist migration management in the unlikely event it was ever required.

Essentially what we see is that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service really hasn’t changed anything in regards to genetic connectivity. They’ve only clarified, and in my opinion beefed up, what role genetic exchange/connectivity has in wolf recovery in hopes of satisfying the courts.

This shows me one thing very clearly. When the USFWS went to court, it was no secret that one of the issues being discussed at length on more than one occasion was genetic connectivity, yet the USFWS was ill prepared to explain and present what they will attempt to explain in the upcoming Final Rule.

Let’s hope they are better prepared this time because we know the lawsuits will begin and every aspect discussed in the past and any new ones the animal rights and environmentalist can dig up, will be dragged before the judge.

Personally, I look for nothing to change.

Tom Remington