The region’s leading environmental advocacy group, the Adirondack Council, has placed themselves front and center in the fight against the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) pending decision to remove the gray wolf from its endangered species list and their decision to list the eastern wolf as a new separate species with a distinct evolutionary heritage, an action that means that the eastern wolf is no longer technically endangered and doesn’t warrant federal protection.
Listed species are eligible to receive special federal protection from hunting, trapping and habitat loss. Removing the eastern timberwolf means that wolves that drift into the area wouldn’t be subject to federal protections.
A viable wolf population hasn’t yet been reestablished in the northeast, argues the Adirondack Council, and delisting them not only is poor public policy based on shoddy science, but also a violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the federal law designed to protect imperiled species from extinction.
The FWS said current scientific research has shown that there are no resident populations of eastern wolf or any wolf species in the northeastern United States.
“On the rare occasion that a true wolf is seen in the northeastern states,” said FWS spokeswoman Meagan Racey, “it is almost certainly a dispersing individual from a neighboring Great Lakes or Canadian population.”
This geographical dispersal is one of the arguments that underpins the agency’s pending decision to delist. Under the ESA, federal authorities are required to identify species as endangered or threatened and take action.
“We’re required to recover them,” said FWS Northeast Region Chief of Endangered Species Martin Miller. “But that doesn’t mean that species and subspecies have to be expanded to include all of their historical range. We can’t keep something on the list if it’s no longer endangered or threatened.”
The wolf populations closest to the Adirondack Park are in Quebec’s Papineau-Labelle Reserve 60 miles from New York and Quebec’s Laurentide Reserve, which is less than 75 miles from Maine.
“Different animals have been reported crossing the ice in the winter,” said Racey. “There are times that the river is completely frozen over, even the shipping channel maintained by the Canadian Coast Guard.”
After last year’s period in which the public weighed in with their thoughts, the FWS is undertaking a peer-review process based on material assembled by academics, scientists, private interest groups and the public on both sides of the spectrum that will ultimately decide the final outcome. A final decision is set to be handed down before the end of the year.
“WOLVES ARE WOLVES”
The Adirondack Council believes the Adirondack region is part of the gray wolves’ historic range and that they are still scarce in the area despite rebounding populations in the west, including Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, a development that has led to their pending removal from the list.
“The bottom line is that they’re wolves, they’re endangered and removing them from the plan is premature,” said Adirondack Council Executive Director William C. Janeway. “They’re not back in the northeast and shouldn’t be removed.”
Janeway said that the northeast used to host a sizable wolf population before they were driven out through hunting and habitat loss in the late-1800s. While sightings are unheard of, recent evidence suggests that at least one wild wolf migrated to the Adirondacks within the last decade.
The Adirondack Council, Janeway stressed, is not supporting or proposing a reintroduction of the wolf in the region, but is rather bringing attention to what they interpret as the FWS’s declaration of a premature victory.
“The FWS first comes up with a recovery plan and then has to successfully implement it,” said Janeway. “If the wolves were back, it’d be a no-brainer. But they’re not and shouldn’t be removed.”
Janeway believes that the federal agency’s decision is poor public policy.
“We oppose the federal government taking an unfriendly wolf position towards wolves in the northeast,” he said, explaining that the organization sees the pending delisting as an attempt by the FWS to redefine the species to move it out of the box so that they no longer have to meet the original goal, something that may set a dangerous precedent for the future.
This, said Janeway, is both inconsistent and a violation of the ESA, something that makes this issue larger than the scope of just one animal.
“We’re concerned the FWS may have drifted from their science-based process and I hope science will win out in the favor of delisting, namely when it comes to the species difference,” said Janeway. “If there is a distinct plan, then you need a specific plan for the eastern timberwolf and we hope that the science will trump politics,” he said, referring to the peer-review process.
Janeway sees the ecosystem as a rich tapestry that threatens to become unraveled if environmental decisions become based on politics instead of science.
“We have to follow the science, even when it takes us in directions that we couldn’t have wanted.”
If the gray wolf did end up being delisted on the federal level, it doesn’t mean that it would be open season on the wolves that may wander into the area.
Local sportsmen would still be prohibited from hunting or trapping them because they would still be considered an endangered species at the state level.
Each state maintains their own list of endangered species. New York State has a three-tiered list upon which the gray wolf is included on the highest level of alarm.
“If the federal government delists the gray wolf, it will still be illegal to shoot them in New York State,” said David Winchell, a Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) official based in Ray Brook.
The only difference that a federal delisting of the gray wolf will make for New York, Winchell said, is that if a decision was made to reintroduce the gray wolf, the DEC would have to manage the reintroduction — not the FWS.
Adirondack Council Conservation Director Rocci Aguirre acknowledges that while the wolf would still see a certain degree of safeguards, state authorities lack the experience necessary to ensure their protection.
“The lack of protections afforded by the ESA would place the future of wild migrants under the auspices of state game management agencies that are ill equipped and inexperienced in handling the unique issues surrounding the restoration of viable wolf populations,” he said.
Species are required to be monitored by the ESA for a minimum of five years — and sometimes as much as 15 — after their delisting to indicate whether they should be relisted or relisted under the emergency listing authority of the ESA to prevent a significant risk to their well-being, said Miller.
In order to do this, he said, authorities should focus on reviewing and evaluating the population characteristics of the species, threats and implementation of policies that are important in reducing threats to the species or maintaining threats at sufficiently low levels.
All of that withstanding, the eastern wolf could still be tacked onto the ESA in the future, making the fight an exercise in futility.
“Its protection would require the FWS to go through the formal rule-making process as with any other species,” said Miller. “And it hasn’t yet been completed.”