The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to remove the gray wolf, Canis lupus, from the list of endangered  and threatened species suffered what should have been a fatal review in January when a scientific panel convened by the USFWS itself unanimously concluded that the agency had not relied on the “best available science” in writing the rule. 

Failure to do so violates USFWS’s own guidelines for determining whether to list (or de-list) a species.

“The Service intends that any final action resulting from these proposed rules will be based on the best scientific and commercial data available, and be as accurate and as effective as possible,” USFWS says of itself. The phrase “best scientific and commercial data” is key here.

The gray wolf was one of the first animals added to the list when the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. Now the USFWS wants to claim the wolf is not a “valid species” under the terms of the act because it never existed in its pure form in what became the United States. Instead there were a number of subspecies, of which the Mexican wolf, C. l. baileyi is the last in need of protection. The logic is fractured because it proposes that the subspecies predated the parent species and kept it out of its territory.

I wrote on this plan when it was announced last June. It made little sense then; it makes less sense now that the science behind the rule has been found wanting.

Late last year, the USFWS commissioned the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to impanel a group of scientists to address the science behind the rule. To the surprise, perhaps, only of USFWS officials, the special peer review panel unanimously found that the rule was not based on best available science. The genetic analyses were bad; so too were the taxonomic surveys.

The scientific panel featured Sylvia Fallon of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Paul Wilson of Trent University, William Murdoch of the University of California, Santa Barbara, Steven Courtney, the review leader for the Center, and Robert K. Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles. 

Wayne is the preeminent canid geneticist working today. He follows the data wherever it leads. His critique of the USFWS effort is thorough and particularly devastating. But the entire report is worth careful reading.

Whether USFWS officials believed that scientists would back up their science and provide sufficient scientific cover for delisting, thereby appeasing some wolf proponents, I cannot say. It is difficult at first glance to believe that USFWS officials are convinced they are right in the face of facts and commentary to the contrary, but there is a strong institutional stubbornness at work. 

For example, the USFWS has refused to yield on the nature of the “red wolf” (Canis rufus), which it has been selectively breeding for forty years, despite strong evidence that the animal is the product of a fairly recent coyote and gray wolf cross, or some other hybrid.

The justification for the gray wolf delisting came in a scientific monograph published in October 2012 by the Fish and Wildlife Service and written by Service scientists, Steven M. Chambers, Steven R. Fain, Bud Fazio, and Michael Amaral. They redraw the wolf map of North America and argue that delisting of the gray wolf is partly justified by the fact that red wolves kept gray wolves out of the Southeast. 

In this redrawn map the eastern timber wolf, now given separate species status, C. lycaon, guarded the Northeast; thus, the red wolf and timber wolf combined to keep gray wolves out of 29 states. The interior west had C.lupus nubilis in the north, C.l. baileyi in the Southwest into Mexico, and through the Northwest was C.l. occidentalis. These subspecies of the gray wolf are said to be discrete enough geographically and thus genetically, ecologically, behaviorally, and morphologically from the parent species to be cleaved from it.

Basically, the monograph authors divide the lower 48 into subspecies territories, and then declare each subspecies except C. l. baileyi recovered or not in need of protection. By their scheme, there is no room for C. lupus, whose range would subsume all others and who thus would continue to require protection in places where it no longer existed. Such a range reduction largely defies reason. 

Among other problems pointed out by the reviewers are the uncertain status of the red wolf and Eastern timber wolf:  it appears they might be the same species rather than two separate ones. Chambers and his colleagues also wrongly claim that the gray wolf was not historically found in the East.

After the report was released in January 2014, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced a 45-day reopening of the public comment period to allow people to read and respond to it. That period ends March 27, 2014. Then we shall see whether the USFWS decides to ignore the best available science and delist the gray wolf. If they do, they will go a long way toward sealing President Obama’s legacy as the worst environmental President since the modern environmental movement began.


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