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Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

In light of deficits, budget cuts are always in the works.

Aside from the social upheaval in Wisconsin, others feel budget cuts are taking dramatic blows at wildlife conservation efforts and their progress in recent years.

Take the gray wolf, for example. Long seen as a nuisance by ranchers and farmers who lose livestock, wolves have been fiercely protected by some and adamantly defended by others.

A recent bill, intended to “make appropriations” for government agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Interior, previously included article 1704, which would strip gray wolves of their endangered species status in a handful of states in the Northwest, including parts of Idaho, Montana, Utah, Oregon and Washington. Since earlier this week, section 1713 has been removed (I suspect because of lawsuits in those states). Here’s what I could find, though.

The bottom line: not many people foresaw the gray wolf’s appearance in the bill.

If passed, the Department of the Interior will maintain only 300 gray wolves in these areas, granting authorities to cull the rest, which may result in an 82 percent reduction in the current population of 1,700 wolves in these areas, says Natural Resources Defense Council Director Andrew Wetzler. He also thinks this number is well below what’s needed to maintain a healthy population in the long-run. Mind you, wolves have remained on the endangered species list all other states except Alaska, Minnesota and Hawaii (independent of some “experimental” populations).

What’s concerning to me are the motives for this change — who’s benefiting here? Elk herders who lose many individuals to wolves have much to gain, and I agree that they have the right to protect their livelihoods as well. But will this measure eventually free up hunting on these “experimental/non-essential” wolf populations?

It’s hard to tell at this point. But it’s more than apparent that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Plan will take quite the blow if this version of the budget is passed. This year alone, these programs are losing some $88 million to protect endangered species (see section 1708). The budget proposes instead maintaining nearly $2.5 million for this purpose.

The issue also came up in 2010 as a federal court ruled against delisting the gray wolf because the state of Wyoming didn’t have an adequate conservation program in place to manage populations like Idaho and Montana did. The judge’s ruling maintained that wolves needed to be viewed as a population rather than individuals. Here’s the gray wolf’s range over time.

Does this budget balancing counter that attitude?

In my opinion, it does because wolf populations do not understand or adhere to state lines. They don’t know when they’re entering Montana versus Idaho or Wyoming — or vice versa. Ironically, the reason why gray wolves were not taken off the endangered species in these states this summer was because Wyoming would not restrict hunting practices. Now the situation seems to have reversed, as wolves that remain protected under the Endangered Species Act in Wyoming are offered little protection if they cross state lines north or westward into Montana and Idaho.

Researching the gray wolf issue also emphasizes the point that small portions of legislation — highly contentious ones at that — are often reduced remarkably in the legislative process. I acknowledge the need for maintaining the conciseness and brevity of the bill, but I still feel this decision hasn’t been discussed extensively by all parties involved.

Wildlife advocates and government lawyers have already decided to square off over the issue in Missoula, Mont. It looks like both sides will meet in court again on March 24. I certainly hope the issue will be resolved using the best science and expert opinion. And the fact remains that other conservation programs are destined to suffer from these cuts as well. I’m unsure how they will be able to stay above water with a several million budget cut looming over their heads.


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Marianne is a science communicator working in Madison, Wis.

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