Congress puts wolves in its crosshairs

With the 115th Congress drawing to a close, House Republicans (with a few Democrats thrown in) opted to leave the American public with a rather questionable parting gift: passing legislation (H.R. 6784) that would delist gray wolves as "endangered and threatened wildlife" across almost the entire United States. What the “Manage Our Wolves Act” would mean in practice is that these animals would no longer receive key federal protections and would be subjected to brutal and extreme hunting methods.

But given that H.R. 6784 is unlikely to pass the Senate during the remainder of the lame-duck session, what then was the point of this proverbial 11th-hour vote on a bill that was widely panned among animal protection, conservation and wildlife groups? Sending a message of pure animosity towards wolves appears in part to have been the goal. The floor debate was rife with rhetoric portraying these animals as lupine bogeymen (how they’ll devour “fancy little dogs” or “wander[] around your subdivision” at night). Looking ahead, we can fully expect similar or even identical legislation to rear its ugly head in the new session of Congress that begins in January.

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Bills like the “Manage Our Wolves Act” — which circumvent scientific, regulatory, and judicial processes so that Congress can remove animals from the Endangered Species Act — rely on an antiquated notion of “management” that would turn public lands into killing fields where wolves (or whichever species du jour happens to be in Congress’s crosshairs) can be shot on sight.

Wolves once numbered in the millions in North America; today an estimated 5,000 exist across the lower 48, occupying roughly five percent of their historic range. Federal courts have repeatedly ruled that these animals should, in fact, remain on the list of endangered and threatened species. But in their zeal to kill wolves with no questions asked, a number of states in recent years have sought to declare open season by implementing aggressive statewide hunting programs.

Our country’s history with wolves is complicated and discouraging, to say the least. Government-sanctioned extermination campaigns resulted in the near eradication of wolves in the contiguous United States in the 20th century.  The still familiar slogan that “the only good wolf is a dead wolf” encapsulates the mindset that prevailed for far too long.

But with respect to our own era, it might be worth asking whether population numbers are even relevant to the types of conversations policymakers should be having about how to “manage” these animals. Even if wolf populations had recovered, would a popular and beloved wolf deserve to be gunned down by trophy hunters a mere five miles outside of Yellowstone National Park (the same as her mother a few years ago)? Would it warrant setting brutal body-gripping traps or shooting entire families from a helicopter because they happen to live in a national forest where ranchers decide to let their cattle loose to graze?

These are the kind of recent and notorious examples that made headlines, but the fact that such cases drew widespread criticism should come as no surprise. Polling consistently shows that Americans want wolves protected. In attempting to shove through a bill like H.R. 6784, members of Congress are blatantly bucking the will and wishes of the American people.

As a nation, we celebrated when wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone — the crown jewel of the national park system — after being exterminated in the early 20th century.  We didn’t work so hard to bring wolves back from the brink of extinction only to annihilate these animals all over again.

Joanna Grossman, Ph.D., serves on the advisory board of Predator Defense, a national nonprofit that protects native carnivores and sheds light on government-sponsored lethal control programs.