Wildlife Conservation Science & Policy

Dedicated to the social and political aspects–the so-called "human dimensions"–of wildlife management

Are wolves endangered in the northern Rockies?

Update Jan 2010 – Clarifying comments on Utah Public Radio (MP3 Audio)

In the December issue of BioScience, my colleagues and I use the US Fish & Wildlife Services 2009 decision to remove wolves in the northern Rockies from endangered species protections to illustrate how the social sciences can contribute meaningfully to listing determinations.  Essentially, this paper asserts that, when threats to a species are primarily anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) the Endangered Species Act’s mandate that listing decisions be made “solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available” applies not just to biophysical sciences, but also relevant social science data.

In the 2009 Final Rule removing protections for wolves, the FWS asserted that attitudes toward wolves are a potential threat to the species.  We summarized their analysis of this threat as follows:

“(1) human attitudes are a potential threat to wolves because human-caused wolf mortality, driven by human attitudes, extirpated wolves from this region in the first place;

(2) the threat posed by human attitudes has lessened substantially because public attitudes have improved in recent decades;

(3) state management of wolves will foster local support of wolves and wolf recovery; and

(4) existing state regulatory mechanisms will “balance negative attitudes” and ensure recovery…” (p. 943).

We assert that numerous studies exist that can help with the evaluations of these assumptions, but these studies do not appear in the 2009 Final Rule.  In particular, existing social science evidence conflicts with arguments #2 and #3–we discuss this in detail in the BioScience article. However, it is important to point out that it was not our intent to affect the listing status of wolves.  In fact, the decision to relist wolves was made long ago.  Rather, our intent was to use the case of wolves in the northern Rockies to illustrate how social science information can contribute meaningfully to listing status determinations and provide a “roadmap” of some important considerations for future listing status determinations regarding wolves.

As to the question of whether wolves are endangered, we note that, ultimately, listing determinations require agencies to answer two important questions: what is the risk posed to a species, and is this risk acceptable?  While our analysis clearly suggests the risks posed by society are greater than FWS estimated, they cannot speak to the second question.  Thus, we leave it to readers to formulate their own views on the matter.

Bruskotter, J.T., Toman, E., Enzler, S.A., & Schmidt, R.H. 2010. Are gray wolves endangered in the northern Rocky Mountains? A role for social science in listing determinations. BioScience 60(11):941-947.

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2 responses to “Are wolves endangered in the northern Rockies?

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