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Why Are the Feds Giving Up on Wolf Recovery in California?

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Jamie Rappaport Clark, President & CEOTen years ago, the idea of gray wolves in California was a faraway dream. At the time, there were fewer than 1,000 wolves across the entire western United States—most of them safely tucked away in the forests of central Idaho, northwest Montana and Yellowstone National Park.

Wolf OR7 gained national attention when spotted in California - the only wolf in the state, despite a great deal of suitable habitat.

Wolf OR7 gained national attention when spotted in California – the only wolf in the state, despite a great deal of suitable habitat.

Since then we’ve seen wolves reclaim more of their former habitat. At the end of last year, there were nearly 2,000 wolves in the West, including almost 100 wolves in the eastern portions of Washington and Oregon. Miraculously, at the very end of 2011, a lone male wolf even crossed into California. The wolf, known officially as OR-7 and nicknamed “Journey,” was the first wolf to set foot in the state since the 1940s.

OR-7 lingered for just over a year before returning to Oregon. Yet his presence in California stirred the imagination of wolf advocates and the fears of wolf haters alike. The possibility of wild wolves once again roaming northern California suddenly became very real. As a result, California Department of Fish and Wildlife started making plans in case more wolves return.

But the chance of wolves permanently returning and surviving in California is quickly diminishing. In June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced its intention to abandon wolf recovery across most of the lower 48, including eliminating federal Endangered Species Act protections for any wolves that arrive in the Golden State. Without federal resources and support, it’s questionable whether California will be able to sustain long-term recovery efforts for this important missing part of its natural heritage.

Who cares if wolves ever return to California? According to a recent poll, 69% of Californians support restoring wolves to suitable habitat in their state. Importantly, 80% of respondents also agreed that wolves should continue to be protected under the Endangered Species Act until they are fully recovered.

That’s because Californians understand the potential benefits that wolves can bring to the ecosystems they inhabit. In the same poll, seventy-three percent agreed that wolves play an important role in maintaining healthy elk and deer populations and that restoring wolves to forests and wilderness areas will bring a healthier balance to the ecosystem.

gray wolf yellowstone

Gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park (© Sandy Sisti)

This has certainly been the case in places like Yellowstone National Park where the return of wolves has brought a number of positive environmental changes. Wolves keep elk and deer on the move and away from sensitive river areas where streamside vegetation had been destroyed by decades of over-browsing. Now, aspen, willow and cottonwood trees are flourishing in creek bottoms in Yellowstone National Park, providing additional food, shelter and shade for beavers, songbirds and fish.

But there’s more to wolves than just filling a vital ecological niche. For many, this iconic species represents the very essence of the wild — that which cannot be controlled and keeps us humble as human beings at a time when our dominion over the planet is nearly absolute. That’s why 83% of Californians agree that wolves should be protected in the state and are a vital part of America’s wilderness and heritage.

Wildlife conservation and protecting our precious natural resources must be guided first and foremost by sound science, rather than by political convenience. So when 16 of our nation’s top biologists wrote a letterin May, questioning FWS’ decision to abandon wolf recovery, it should give us all pause. Why is the federal government so anxious to throw in the towel?

We did not stop fighting for bald eagles until they were soaring in the skies from coast to coast. We did not quit protecting American alligators until they once again occupied suitable habitat from Texas to Carolina. And we shouldn’t abandon wolves when they only occupy less than 10 percent of their historic range and about a third of currently suitable habitat nationwide.

I think we can do better. On Oct. 2 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is hosting a public hearing in Sacramento to hear what Californians think about the federal delisting proposal. Please consider attending the hearing to voice your support for continued wolf recovery. This is one of only three public hearings nationwide and the only one on the West Coast — perhaps our last chance to make a difference and ensure that having wolves in California doesn’t become a forgotten dream.

Originally published in the Sacramento Bee 

Want to speak out for wolves? Click here for information about the public hearings, and how to submit your comments. 

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