April 15, 2009

the partial delisting of the gray wolf and the myths of the environmental movement

By the partial delisting of the gray wolf and the myths of the environmental movement

Writing in Monday's New York Times, Times editorial board member Verlyn Klinkenborg expressed his displeasure over the partial delisting of the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act. Although Klinkenborg acknowledged the remarkable surpassing of wolf population recovery goals, something still isn't quite right for him. According to Klinkenborg, although the partial delisting decision "may indeed have been based on science, and on the numbers called for in the recovery plan," the recovery plan "surely needs revaluation, and in any case the administration clearly was not eager to defend it."

Why the need to take a closer look at the original recovery goals? Klinkenborg believes that would help to ensure a proper accounting for the apparent myth that underlies human thinking about the wolf:

When it comes to wolves, federal law has been protecting what is, fundamentally, a mythic species. And when it ceases protecting them, they will be exposed to the worst aspects of that myth — a deep, ancestral hostility to wolves based on … nothing.

Wolves do not kill humans. They are responsible for a minuscule number of livestock deaths in the West — less than domestic dogs — and there are federal and state programs specifically designed to compensate ranchers who lose stock to wolves.

To hunters, killing wolves is both an end in itself and a way of reducing their predation on elk and deer. And it is more than that. Killing a wolf is also a way of participating in the myth of the West. That myth nearly drove the species to extinction.

NRDC's Matt Skoglund approved of Klinkenborg's analysis, suggesting that "[t]he myth of the nefarious wolf (see Little Red Riding Hood) fuels much on the anti-wolf rhetoric in the West."

The real rhetoric, however, is coming from folks like Klinkenborg and Skoglund, who equate opposition to the complete federalization of wildlife management to the desire to drive species to extinction. Klinkenborg, for instance, gives short shrift to the ability of states to manage wolf populations and apocalyptically proclaims that wolves "have been brought only to be killed again."

Klinkenborg and Skoglund's rhetoric is a disservice to those who value responsible wildlife management, particularly to those officials that are behind the efforts of several states to maintain viable population of wolves throughout the West.

More importantly, environmentalists have their own myths, and they are perpetuated by Klinkenborg and Skoglund's analyses.

One myth is that the needs of wildlife and of humans are of equal priority. Klinkenborg laments that, despite the noticeable recovery of the gray wolf, "very little has been done to change the behavior of humans." He further argues that "[t]here is every good reason to try genuine coexistence" between humans and wolves.

In reality, however, human progress and achievement have not been accomplished by a "genuine coexistence" of humans and wildlife. Contrary to Klinkenborg's assertions, genuine coexistence and compensation for livestock who lose livestock are not adequate options. Our country values the protection of private property, and states should have the ability to value ranching and hunting over a species that is a known predator.

The second myth is that states are incapable of properly managing wildlife. Skoglund writes that, because the state wolf management plans are fueled by the apparent "anti-wolf rhetoric" in the West, Klinkenborg and NRDC are right to be "concerned about removing wolves from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana." According to Klinkenborg, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar "faces the very difficult task of making certain that Idaho and Montana adhere to the letter of their management plans."

These claims are unfounded and fail to acknowledge the complex regulatory systems in each state that govern wolf population management. Consider, for example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife's lauding of states regulatory framework and how the Service noted that "State management of wolves will be in alignment with the classic State-led North American model for wildlife management which has been extremely successful at restoring, maintaining, and expanding the distribution of numerous populations of other wildlife species, including other large predators, throughout North America."

In the end, what's really going on here is nothing close to a mythology of or hatred towards the gray wolf. The story is much more simple: the gray wolf species has recovered, and most states have been determined to be more than capable of managing their respective wolf populations going forward.

A consequence of this positive development is that the opinions of Klinkenborg and Skoglund are less relevant, as they rely primarily on federal statutes like the ESA to dictate wildlife public policy. Instead of spreading their own myths and fear mongering, Klinkenborg and Skoglund should applaud the Western states' continued commitment to the sound monitoring of wildlife populations.

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