Something telling and distressing is happening in Washington, D.C. with Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives. They just suffered historic losses in the House, with Democrats picking up perhaps 38 seats and winning the majority for the first time in a decade. Lawmakers have made their way back to Washington, D.C. and convened for three weeks of what’s known as the “lame duck session” – where the lawmakers elected in November 2016 gather to finish the business of the 115th Congress. And the first bill that Republican leaders have placed on the House calendar for active debate and a vote is a measure, H.R. 6784, to eliminate federal protections for wolves in the lower 48 states.
Allowing the slaughter of wolves is their big idea to reconnect with the American public? Is this the big idea to help the country and to demonstrate that the American public was wrong to turn them out of power?
With 320 million people and 5,000 wolves in the lower 48 states, is it really that we are out of balance and it’s that there are too many wolves?
H.R. 6487, by Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, has a grand total of four cosponsors. Meanwhile, there are six bills that promote animal welfare that have 218 or more cosponsors — a majority of the chamber. The only explanation for this bill is that it’s a payback for the small group of trophy, trappers, and ranchers who want to kill wolves.
If this all sounds like someone is using a big stage to play a very small game, let us remind you that there is a larger issue at stake. This is an attempt to create a precedent that could lead to Congress deciding which species perish and which ones recover.
Duffy’s anti-wolf bill would short-circuit multiple federal court rulings against premature de-listing by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and put Congress in the position of cherry-picking the species it wants off the list. As a matter of good government, along with our responsibility to be good stewards of creation, we should not allow this arbitrary and capricious political subversion of judicial review.
Gray wolves, virtually eradicated between 1850 and 1920 during our westward expansion, have had a slow walk back from the precipice of extinction. Their arduous reclaiming of a fraction of their native habitats has been hindered more than helped by human hands. For decades, federal and state governments executed ruthless and effective predator control programs – a slaughter that stands alongside the massacre of bison as the most wanton chapters in the history of American wildlife management.
Some have tried to undo some of the damage — first in the 1970s by protecting the small population of surviving wolves in Minnesota through the Endangered Species Act and then in the last 20 years by reintroducing wolves to the Northern Rockies and the Southwest.
Wolves now occupy habitat in about 10 states. Add up all the surviving wolves, though, and you still only get about 5,000 in the lower 48 states — fewer wolves ambling over millions of square miles than there are people in the 12-square-mile small town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Wolves play a critical role in their native ecosystems, as anyone who has watched the powerful documentary How Wolves Change Rivers can attest. Biologists in Yellowstone have found that wolves push deer and elk populations from overgrazed areas, enabling aspen and willow to reclaim ground and restore forest health.
Along with beavers, wolves have restored streams and reduced flooding and bank erosion. In Yellowstone, restored streams have attracted more plants, songbirds, water-wading birds, and moose. Wolf predation helps maintain healthy deer populations, lowering the frequency of deer-auto collisions and prevalence of crop losses. They mitigate impacts on vegetation and bring vitality to entire ecosystems. This saves private citizens and governments tens of millions of dollars a year.
Wolves also generate jobs and commerce. The International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn. contributes $3 million to the local economy annually, and annual visitor spending has increased by $35.5 million since the reintroduction of wolves in the states surrounding Yellowstone National Park.
And although some wolves do occasionally prey on livestock, it’s minimal. Wolf kills account for between 0.1 percent and 0.6 percent of all livestock deaths. Of all the world’s top predators, they are among the least threatening to human beings — with no documented attacks by healthy wolves on people in the lower 48 states in the last century.
Surely Republican leaders have better ideas than this. When it comes to how we treat animals, they can look to a half dozen of their House Republican colleagues who have authored animal protection bills that command a majority of the full House — measures to crack down on horse soring, to end the slaughter of American horses throughout North America, to enact a national anti-cruelty law, and other sound and popular ideas.
Let’s hope that the 195 House Democrats are aligned tomorrow and oppose this reckless and mistimed bill, and that at least 30 Republican House members, including some of the Members who lost elections last week, have the good sense not to trample on the lives of wolves for no good reason. They might also ask their leaders if they can do better than this, that surely they’ve got better, more relevant ideas to advance after a national election that’s realigned Washington so meaningfully.
Update: On Friday, November 16, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly approved H.R. 6784 by a vote of 196 to 180 (go to the link to see how your U.S. Representative voted) to lift federal protections for wolves in the lower 48 states and enable state fish and wildlife agencies to open trophy hunting and commercial trapping programs. It is now critical to call your two U.S. Senators at 202-224-3121 and urge them to oppose any attempts to add any wolf delisting bill and other anti-Endangered Species Act riders to a year-end spending bill.