Opinion: In proposal to strip gray wolves' protection, agency ignored the science
Silicon Valley embraces science and loves innovation. Sadly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recently shown contempt for both when it comes to the recovery of gray wolves -- particularly in the wilds of Northern California, where a lone wolf recently visited for the first time in more than 80 years.
This Nov. 14, 2011, photo from a hunter's trail camera appears to show OR-7, the young male wolf that has wandered more than 1,000 miles across Oregon and Northern California. (Allen Daniels / Mail Tribune)
The more we study wolves, the more they teach us. We have known for years that wolves disproportionately affect their environment relative to their abundance. As top-level predators, they are influential in shaping and maintaining the structure of their natural communities. Their presence and activities benefit numerous other species, helping determine the numbers and kinds of mammals, birds and plants in an area.
For example, bears, weasels, ravens and eagles often scavenge on elk and deer carcasses left by wolves. Wolves alter the feeding behavior of elk and deer, which limits over-browsing -- the consumption of too much vegetation -- and prevents the destruction of plants and habitats vital to many species of birds. When wolves recolonize areas, they induce vegetative changes allowing for the return of beaver and migrating birds previously driven out of denuded habitats. Predation by wolves also removes animals that are weaker genetically or harbor sicknesses.
Historically, wolves in Washington, Oregon and Northern California were likely a mixture of the distinct forms we now see in coastal British Columbia and the Rockies. Wolf populations in Southern California probably included the desert dwellers. Accordingly, to assure wolf recovery we need to secure the natural travel corridors that connect coastal, mountain and desert environments, allowing wolves to move freely about the Pacific Northwest and California. The assemblage of wolves from these different environments will eventually yield wolves similar to those that once graced our wildest habitats. In light of this, the biggest lessons that wolves have still to teach us might be patience and faith.
The service, when it reconsiders the delisting proposal, needs to remember these lessons and accept the scientific criticisms if they are to regain credibility lost during this exercise. And that means maintaining protections so that western wolves and environments have time to do their work.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who ultimately decides whether western wolves are stripped of protection, recently proclaimed, "It's about science, and you do what the science says." We agree and will hold her to that promise while helping her succeed in developing an approach that fully embraces science and innovation, making an appropriately recovered gray wolf real.
Paul Paquet is an internationally prominent wolf scientist and senior scientist at Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Bob Ferris, executive director of Cascadia Wildlands, has been a leader in wolf advocacy for two decades. They wrote this for this newspaper.