The Trump administration on Thursday ended endangered species protection for gray wolves nationwide, rankling conservationists who contend wolves still are vulnerable — and raising the stakes in Colorado’s wolf reintroduction ballot battle in next week’s election.
U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt declared wolves recovered after 45 years under federal protection, and federal wildlife officials hailed wolves as an Endangered Species Act success along with the bald eagle.
“Today’s action reflects the Trump Administration’s continued commitment to species conservation,” Bernhardt said in a statement.
This removal of wolves from the nation’s list of species facing extinction, long-fought in courts, was announced at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge five days before Colorado voters decide whether to direct state officials to reintroduce wolves on former habitat west of the Continental Divide.
It means the fate of wolves that could be reintroduced in Colorado, and thousands making a comeback elsewhere, depends on state-level management plans that typically allow hunting of wolves and “removal” by livestock ranchers.
Federal wildlife officials did not respond to Denver Post requests for comment but were conducting a background briefing for journalists.
In Colorado, Defenders of Wildlife Rockies and Plains program director Jon Proctor, pushing for reintroduction, said lifting federal endangered species protection is premature and makes voters’ decision on Proposition 114 crucial to guarantee a self-sustaining population in the state.
“National wolf delisting would leave any wolves that may make it to Colorado with even fewer protections. It would also cut off any protected path through Utah, in addition to Wyoming’s current shoot-on-sight policy for most of that state,” Proctor said.
The Colorado voter-initiated ballot measure, if it passes, would set a precedent as the first time voters in a state have directed their government to reintroduce an imperiled species — a shift in wildlife management reflecting rising urban demands for restoration of ecological balance.
The lifting of protection applies only to gray wolves, which number more than 6,000, not Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona, which number around 163 and are seen by scientists as more vulnerable to extinction.
Delisting wolves — placed on the endangered list in 1974 — follows years of attempts by Fish and Wildlife Service officials, who last year formally proposed the removal of protection for wolves in the lower 48 states. The list plays a key role in the nation’s system for averting the extinctions that are obliterating animals, fish, insects and plants worldwide.
Wolves once roamed widely across the western United States before ranchers backed by state and local governments practically eradicated the species. The last wolf was killed in Colorado around 1945. Wolves thrived in the mountain habitat, surviving frontier days and eradication efforts that intensified when Colorado became a state with a bounty offered as early as 1867.
Federally guided wolf recovery efforts began in 1995 with reintroductions at Yellowstone National Park, which led to eventual recovery of more than 1,700 wolves in Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Federal protection already has been lifted in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, with the Fish and Wildlife Service clearing state wildlife agencies to manage wolves under state plans. For example, hunters are allowed to kill wolves across most of Wyoming, a limit on lone wolves’ natural migration into Colorado.
Until Thursday, federal protections remained in place for wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and locations lacking state-led management.
Wildlife protection groups lambasted the federal delisting as reckless. Conservationist groups, including the National Wildlife Federation, have opposed lifting endangered species protection nationwide.
Defenders of Wildlife officials this week said “the species is not secure” across much of wolves’ range due to hunting, trapping, poaching and other threats such as vehicle traffic. They warned of “increasingly hostile anti-wolf policies” in states, where removal of protection means wolves legally can be killed without penalty.
Since federal protection was lifted in northern Rocky Mountain states in 2011, more than 3,500 wolves have been killed under state management plans, according to statistics compiled by the Defenders.
Opponents of wolf reintroduction in Colorado embraced the federal lifting of protections as a positive step toward giving states greater flexibility.
“It gives us one less regulatory hurdle,” said Shawn Martini, spokesman for Coloradans for Protecting Wildlife, which has been fighting against reintroduction with support from county commissions and chambers of commerce.
“We still don’t want wolves reintroduced because they are already coming here,” Martini said, referring to evidence of a pack living in northwestern Colorado.
“There’s a lot up in the air now. Let’s get things sorted out,” he said. “This could be the first time in the nation that wildlife management (of an imperiled species) is decided by voters rather than by the experts. Let’s make sure all our regulatory bodies have their ducks in a row before we go trying to set a precedent.”
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