By Chris W. Cox
NRA-ILA Executive Director
Conservation Victory In Wolf Battle
Victories sometimes come in the most unlikely places. The battle between Congress and the White House over completing the 2011 federal budget risked a government shutdown. But when negotiators reached an agreement, the bill also contained a little-noticed victory for wildlife conservation and hunters nationwide.
NRA members who live or hunt in the West are acutely aware of the saga over delisting the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Wolf populations in the Rocky Mountain and Great Lakes regions are at least five times larger than the original federal recovery goals, surpassing the objectives of the ESA. Today, wolves ravage struggling wildlife populations all over the West.
Given that success, officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have attempted wolf delisting repeatedly—twice in the Northern Rockies and three times in the Western Great Lakes. But anti-hunting groups have filed relentless lawsuits, successfully derailing the delisting process. Maybe it’s just me, but it sure seems like the anti-hunting groups only start tossing around lawsuits when it comes to delisting a species that will then be scientifically managed by hunting. Where were the lawsuits over delisting the bald eagle?
This year, NRA joined with a coalition of other major hunting and conservation groups to press for congressional intervention in the dysfunctional delisting process. Against the backdrop of negotiations over spending cuts, Western lawmakers engineered an unprecedented victory for wildlife conservation. For the first time in history, Congress agreed to cut off endless litigation over delisting and enforce the intent of the Endangered Species Act—to delist recovered populations using the best available science and return them to state management.
Here are the details. The budget language mandates that within 60 days, the Department of the Interior must reissue the 2009 rule that delists the Montana, Idaho, Utah, Washington and Oregon wolf populations; and it returns management authority to states. Anti-hunting extremist groups complained that the language marked a triumph of “politics over science,” but just the opposite is true. In truth, the language marks a victory of science over frivolous lawsuits and judicial activism.
And that difference has critical importance. The budget also includes language to specifically block any further lawsuits. It should be no surprise that at press time, a court challenge to that restriction was being filed. But at least for now, by taking the courts out of the equation, Congress is paving the way for states to begin—or resume—managing wolf populations through carefully regulated hunting seasons. Limited wolf hunting seasons were successfully conducted in Idaho and Montana two years ago—only to be thwarted by anti-hunting extremists in court.
As the true conservationists, hunters understand that state game biologists need to have authority to manage all the species that co-exist in their ecosystems. Despite all the pseudo-mysticism that anti-hunting groups attach to the gray wolf, it is a predator species that must be managed like all others. And the wolf differs from other predator species as a killer of opportunity; wolves will kill even when they don’t need food. This kind of routine surplus killing makes it even more imperative that wolves fall under state management authority.
The provision does not, however, mark a comprehensive victory. It does not delist all recovered populations of gray wolves. The Western Great Lakes wolf population was not included in this legislation. The USFWS is pursuing a fourth proposed rule to delist that population, now that Congress has made a strong statement on the issue.
The overall dynamic of the wolf debate changed substantially with this legislation. Anti-hunting groups were running scared ahead of the bill, with some groups offering a weak settlement to the current lawsuits in an effort to stave off Congress. But the settlement, not supported by NRA, was rejected just in time to pave the way for congressional action.
If the anti-hunting groups insist on blocking the delisting with another round of lawsuits, NRA is ready to respond. We are supporting H.R. 838, sponsored by Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., which would delist the Western Great Lakes wolf population in a fashion very similar to the language in the budget bill. And we will keep pushing for solutions wherever the delisting of recovered wolf populations is threatened by frivolous lawsuits. Reasonable people might think these career litigants would learn their lesson and finally allow the ESA to work as intended, but they have proven themselves anything but reasonable.
Our work is never done and it is certainly not done here. NRA supports this initial legislative step, and we will support further legislation to delist all recovered wolf populations. But the passage of this provision marks an important turning point for sound conservation science to prevail over endless lawsuits, and that’s a victory that’s worth celebrating.
James W. Porter II, PRESIDENT
Allan Cors, FIRST VICE PRESIDENT
Pete Brownell, SECOND VICE PRESIDENT
Wayne LaPierre, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT
Edward J. Land Jr., SECRETARY
Wilson H. Phillips Jr., TREASURER
Kyle Weaver, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, GENERAL OPERATIONS
Christopher W. Cox, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR LEGISLATIVE ACTION