WASHINGTON, DC, May 22, 2013 (ENS) – The Obama Administration’s plan to remove the gray wolf from the protections of the Endangered Species Act, as detailed in a draft Federal Register notice released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, is temporarily on hold.

The reasons for the indefinite delay announced this week were not revealed nor were the records of closed-door meetings to craft this plan that began in August 2010.

Today a federal Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain the records from those meetings was filed by PEER, a nonprofit national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals.

gray wolf

Gray wolf, canis lupus (Photo by MacNeil Lyons, National Park Service)

The draft Federal Register notice would strike the gray wolf from the federal list of threatened or endangered species but would keep endangered status for the Mexican wolf. No protected habitat would be delineated for the Mexican wolf, of which fewer than 100 remain in the wild.

This step is the culmination of what officials call their National Wolf Strategy, developed in a series of federal-state meetings called Structured Decision Making, SDM. Tribal representatives declined to participate.

On April 30, 2012, PEER submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for all SDM meeting notes, handouts and decision documents. More than a year later, the agency has not produced any of the requested records, despite a legal requirement that the records be produced within 20 working days.

Today, PEER filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to obtain all of the SDM documents.

“By law, Endangered Species Act decisions are supposed to be governed by the best available science, not the best available deal,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to a letter from the nation’s leading wolf researchers challenging the scientific basis for the de-listing plan.

“The politics surrounding this predator’s legal status have been as fearsome as the reputation of the gray wolf itself,” said Ruch.

To support its argument that politics trumps science in deciding how to handle the nation’s wolves, PEER also made public today a letter from 16 scientists to the new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe expressing “serious concerns with a recent draft rule leaked to the press that proposes to remove Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 States…”

“Collectively, we represent many of the scientists responsible for the research referenced in the draft rule,” wrote the scientists, who specialize in carnivores and conservation biology. “Based on a careful review of the rule, we do not believe that the rule reflects the conclusions of our work or the best available science concerning the recovery of wolves, or is in accordance with the fundamental purpose of the Endangered Species Act to conserve endangered species and the ecosystems upon which they depend.”

Among other problems with the delisting proposal, the scientists say it ignores the positive influence of large carnivores such as wolves on the ecosystems they inhabit.

“The gray wolf has barely begun to recover or is absent from significant portions of its former range where substantial suitable habitat remains. The Service’s draft rule fails to consider science identifying extensive suitable habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California, the southern Rocky Mountains and the Northeast. It also fails to consider the importance of these areas to the long-term survival and recovery of wolves, or the importance of wolves to the ecosystems of these regions,” the scientists wrote.

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Gray wolf shot by a ranch manager in Montana (Photo by Pam Frasier)

“The extirpation of wolves and large carnivores from large portions of the landscape is a global phenomenon with broad ecological consequences,” the scientists wrote. “There is a growing body of scientific literature demonstrating that top predators play critical roles in maintaining a diversity of other wildlife species and as such the composition and function of ecosystems. Research in Yellowstone National Park, for example, found that reintroduction of wolves caused changes in elk numbers and behavior which then facilitated recovery of streamside vegetation, benefitting beavers, fish and songbirds. In this and other ways, wolves shape North American landscapes.”

“Given the importance of wolves and the fact that they have only just begun to recover in some regions and not at all in others,” the scientists wrote, “we hope you will reconsider the Service’s proposal to remove protections across most of the United States.”

PEER charges that the resulting National Wolf Strategy used political and economic factors to predetermine the answer to scientific questions, such as the biological recovery requirements for wolves and ruling out areas in states within the species’ historical range which lack sufficient suitable habitat.

“This closed-door process lacked not only transparency but also integrity. It involved no independent scientists, let alone peer reviewed findings,” Ruch said. “It is not surprising that the Fish and Wildlife Service does not want to see this laundry airing in the public domain.”

Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, is a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service who served during the Clinton Administration.

“The gray wolf delisting proposal represents a major retreat from the optimism and values which have been the hallmark of endangered species recovery in this country for the past 40 years,” says Clark. “Instead, the proposal reflects a short-sighted, shrunken and much weaker vision of what our conservation goals should be. The Service has clearly decided to prematurely get out of the wolf conservation business rather than working to achieve full recovery of the species.”

Clark and five other heads of environmental organizations – Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, Endangered Species Coalition, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sierra Club – last week sent a letter to Secretary Jewell asking that she reconsider the nationwide wolf delisting plan.

“Maintaining federal protections for wolves is essential for continued species recovery,” the letter says, adding that the unwarranted assault on wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains after wolves in those states lost federal protections highlights the “increasingly hostile anti-wolf policies of states now charged with ensuring the survival of gray wolf populations.”

Since wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming were delisted in 2011, more than 1,100 wolves have been killed in these Northern Rockies states.

Gray wolf populations were extirpated from the western United Stated by the 1930s, explains the Fish and Wildlife Service. Public attitudes towards predators changed and wolves received legal protection with the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

Subsequently, wolves from Canada occasionally dispersed south and successfully began recolonizing northwest Montana in 1986. In 1995 and 1996, 66 wolves from southwestern Canada were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho.

Recovery goals of an equitably distributed wolf population containing at least 300 wolves and 30 breeding pairs in three recovery areas within Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming for at least three consecutive years were reached in 2002, according to the Service.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2013. All rights reserved.