Scientists Call B.S. -- Bad Science, That Is -- on Wolf Delisting

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's move to strip gray wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is based on insufficient science, according to a report by an independent panel of scientists. In response to the report, USFWS has again opened public comment on its wolf delisting proposal until March, meaning a bit more delay before gray wolves are potentially removed from the Endangered Species List.

USFWS now expects to make its final decision on delisting the wold by the end of 2014.

In the report, produced by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at UC Santa Barbara, an independent panel of wildlife biologists from universities, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Natural Resources Defense Council agree unanimously that more study is needed before the wolf is removed from ESA protection.

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According to the report, the delisting proposal was based in part on a single October 2012 paper that contends eastern wolves belong to the species Canis lycaon, distinct from gray wolves in the western half of North America belonging to the species Canis lupus. If the eastern part of the wolf's historic range was occupied by a different species, according to USFWS' rationale, then Canis lupus now occupies enough of its historic range to be considered recovered. It can thus be removed from ESA protection.

But the 2012 paper, "An Account of the Taxonomy of North American Wolves From Morphological and Genetic Analyses" by biologist Steven M. Chambers and three colleagues, is not universally considered valid by wolf biologists. Scientists on the NCEAS panel pointed out that Chambers et al's conclusions were based on a few genetic differences between wolf populations that were potentially valid, but not conclusive.

What's more, Chambers and his colleagues are all biologists in the employ of USFWS, and their paper was published in the USFWS journal North American Fauna. There's nothing necessarily nefarious about that: North American Fauna publishes some fine work, and many USFWS biologists are among the best in their fields.

The panel did not reject Chambers et al's conclusions outright. Nonetheless, the panel agreed unanimously that Chambers et al did not represent the "best available science," which is the usual legal standard to which USFWS rulemaking is expected to conform.

The upshot: if it isn't yet settled that eastern wolves are a distinct species, then it's not yet settled whether the species to which western wolves belong has recovered over enough of its range to no longer need protection. And without that settled science, USFWS' delisting is called into question.

Reaction from wolf defenders was swift and jubilant Friday. "The nation's top wolf scientists today confirmed what we and millions of American's have been saying for months: The job of wolf recovery is far from complete," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "This peer review is a major blow to the Obama administration's highly political effort to prematurely remove protections for wolves."

"Peer review is an important step in our efforts to assure that the final decision on our proposal to delist the wolf is based on the best available scientific and technical information," said USFWS Director Dan Ashe. "We thank the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis for conducting a transparent, objective and well-documented process. We are incorporating the peer review report into the public record for the proposed rulemaking, and accordingly, reopening the public comment period to provide the public with the opportunity for input."

As mentioned earlier, public comment on the delisting proposal has now been reopened, the third time the comment period has been so extended on the controversial proposal. Members of the public wishing to comment on the wolf delisting now have until March 27, and more information, as well as an online copy of the NCEAS review of the proposal's science, can be found on the USFWS's gray wolf recovery page.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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