The congressmen afraid of the big bad wolf

Earlier this month, Alaska Rep. Don Young (R) left a room of fellow congressmen and administration officials picking their jaws off the floor when he criticized his congressional colleagues who support continued protection for wolves under the Endangered Species Act.

“I’d like to introduce [wolves] in your district,” he said. “If I introduced them in your district, you wouldn’t have a homeless problem anymore.”   

{mosads}This statement is outrageous and offensive to homeless Americans and anyone, really, who cares about people. But it also is only the latest in over-the-top rhetoric by anti-wolf legislators who seem determined not to let facts or perspective get in the way of their efforts to short-circuit legal protections for these imperiled animals.

In January, Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.) pledged to introduce a bill to delist wolves from the Endangered Species Act in his state and beyond “as quickly as possible” because of the threat he claimed wolves pose to “domestic animals, farm animals and, quite frankly, children.”

True to his word, he introduced such a bill in the House last month. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is expected to introduce a near identical bill in the Senate this week. 

It’s nothing new, of course, for politicians to use scare tactics and exaggerated, inflammatory rhetoric to frighten people into supporting their otherwise unpopular bills. But presenting fairy tales as fact is unacceptable. 

Wolf attacks on humans are exceptionally rare. In the lower 48 states, there has never been a single recorded human death from a wolf attack.  Not one.  Putting Alaska and Canada together, there were two deaths in the past decade attributed to wolves. Prior to that, a 2002 report by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research found a total of 18 wolf attacks in North America in the past 100 years. Only six of those attacks occurred in the U.S.—four in Alaska and two in Minnesota, in most of which the victims weren’t injured. Two of the attacks in Alaska left the victims dead of rabies. Both of those happened in the 1940s. 

Wolves, to be sure, are wild animals. But they will always be less a threat to human safety than any of a number of animal species that kill and injure people each year – species including cattle, domestic dogs, and white-tailed deer.  

Ribble also blamed wolves for livestock deaths. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture found wolves to be responsible for less than one-quarter of one percent of all cattle loss in 2010 in the lower 48 states and, even when lumped together with other carnivores, for less than four percent of sheep deaths. A cow or sheep has a much greater chance of being killed by weather, disease, or feed additives than by a wolf. Understandably, a few cattle or sheep lost could be a major event for one livestock owner, so assisting those who do suffer those losses is appropriate and readily accomplished under existing law. But the tiny risks to livestock aren’t much more of a reason to erase wolf protections than are the nearly non-existent risks to humans.  

What Ribble and Young and many other anti-conservation crusaders are really gunning for is not just the big, bad wolf but  the Endangered Species Act itself. By working to delist wolves through legislative fiat, they hope to upend the Act’s directive that decisions about which species get federal protections must be based on science, not on politics –and certainly not on fairy tales.  

Nearly 85 percent of Americans support the Endangered Species Act. It has achieved remarkable recoveries for imperiled species that preserve an irreplaceable natural heritage for us, our children, and our children’s children. Examples include the bald eagle, the American alligator, and the gray whale of the eastern North Pacific.  It’s a law that works and shouldn’t be tampered with.

The growing tendency of some in Congress to try to undermine one of our nation’s most important effective environmental laws must be stopped. Wolves must continue to be a part of our wild, natural heritage. To accomplish that, Congress must uphold the Endangered Species Act and oppose any legislation that removes federal protections for wolves.

Caputo is vice president of Litigation for Land, Wildlife & Oceans at Earthjustice.

Tags Don Young Reid Ribble Ron Johnson

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