Return of the Gray Wolf - An Environmental Coup

By , M. Rupert Cutler, president of the national conservation organization Defenders of Wildlife, served as assistant secretary of agriculture for natural resources and environment during the Carter administration.

THE howl of the gray wolf is rarely heard today in the United States, where the species has been nearly extinct for 50 years. But it has an excellent chance of being heard again in the wild sometime early in the 1990s. All that's needed is the return of as few as 10 breeding pairs to ancient wolf range in Yellowstone National Park.

The restoration of this magnificent, often misunderstood predator will be a symbol of how man can restore to nature something important that he once removed. Wolves were trapped, poisoned, and shot under federal auspices before their role in balanced ecosystems was widely understood. For Americans, just planning for the wolf's restoration marks a turning point in attitudes about wildlife.

Indications are the House will pass federal legislation leading to wolf restoration in Yellowstone early in 1990. HR 2786, the legislation introduced by Rep. Wayne Owens (D) of Utah, mandates that the Secretary of the Interior complete by Dec. 31, 1991, an environmental impact statement on reintroduction of the wolf. The bill has over 80 bipartisan cosponsors. Similar support is assured in the Senate.

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Restoration of the wolf will be an environmental victory for everyone, not just aficionados of the animal. The campaign to restore the wolf signifies that Americans are ready to save what is undeniably theirs - entire ecosystems where the predator-prey relationship keeps life in balance.

Eventually, the wolf will help cull and strengthen herds of elk and bison. No more should members of bulging populations of those animals starve to death in Wyoming winters as they did last year. And there should be adequate food for those that survive.

Conservationists tell us it is later than we think to save the diversity of animal species throughout the world. This is especially true for animals like the wolf, whose endangerment can be prevented through immediate action.

Still, we are undeniably witnessing the last stand of the predators in our world. In biological terms, the predators are the front line, the first to fall. Not just the wolf, but the mountain lion, the bear, the jaguar. And other, smaller life forms and plants will follow.

Permanent loss of the earth's abundant bio-diversity is happening not only in distant tropical rain forests or parched African savannahs. Here in the United States, in the very national parks and wildlife refuges Americans created to ``preserve nature,'' it's happening. Competing special interests are too often pillaging the habitat of wildlife.

The US General Accounting Office's September 1989 report, ``National Wildlife Refuges: Continuing Problems With Incompatible Uses Call for Bold Action,'' includes a litany of such offenses.

What can be done? A great deal. Fortunately, the human species not only has the capacity to foul its nest, but to clean it up.

We can get ahead of the curve of extinction if we act now. The case of the wolf returning to Yellowstone stands for all the species that should be restored to disturbed habitats. As professor Michael Soule' of the University of California, Santa Cruz, predicted in an address to the Society for Conservation Biology last August, ``Most so-called wild places on the planet will be relatively denatured and in need of intensive restructuring and management.''

How well the reintroduction of the gray wolf at Yellowstone is handled, and how well its importance is explained to the public, could be critical to future such projects in the US and other parts of the world in the 1990s and into the next century.

Americans must work with representatives of other developed nations to help wildlife preservation in the third world, where debt-ridden economies and the loss of tropical species threaten to tip the ecological balance decisively against us. But the place to begin this broader effort is in the US, by putting our own house in order.

Again, Professor Soule': ``We must not ignore North America with its potential for securing and protecting vast areas of wild lands and waters, with its majestic mountains and immaculate deserts, its inland seas and pounding coasts, its remnants of virgin redwood and Douglas fir, its chaparral, its vast plains and deciduous forests, its tundra and taiga, and the multitudes of plants and animals contained in them.''

Some 10 percent of the world's species diversity lies in North America. Protecting that 10 percent requires vigorous implementation of the US Endangered Species Act and preservation of fast-disappearing wetlands.

Having administered state and federal natural resources programs, lobbied state legislatures and Congress on behalf of nongovernment advocacy groups, and conducted research on environmental litigation, I know that motivated citizens can influence the outcome of environmental decisions made by all three branches of government.

Understanding, energy, and commitment make the difference. That we have come this far toward restoring the wolf to Yellowstone bodes well for the 1990s. Success in preserving bio-diversity can come even in the face of the environmental doomsayers. Certainly, not to try would be the worst catastrophe of all.

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