Opinion

True cost of budget deal will be paid in blood – of gray wolves

One of the most unfortunate riders of the recent budget deal is the decision to strip the gray wolf of the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Science has been subordinated to political instrumentalism, setting a dangerous precedent for the future.

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Many words have been spent on the budget compromise struck between Republicans and Democrats in the 11th hour a couple weeks ago, narrowly avoiding a government shutdown. In the days since, details of this budget agreement have slowly emerged, but few actually know what it fully entails – and what it really means for Americans. Perhaps this is because Congress and the president appear to have had a similarly limited understanding of the nature and scope of the cuts they agreed upon.

Nevertheless, President Obama and members of Congress did know that they agreed on a few things having nothing whatsoever to do with the budget, budget cuts, or with federal spending at all. One of the most unfortunate of these “budget” agreement riders is the decision to strip the gray wolf of the protections of the Endangered Species Act. In the 37-year history of the Act, no species has ever been delisted for purely political reasons. Prior to last week, science guided such decisions. Now, science will be subordinated to political instrumentalism, setting a dangerous precedent for the future.

A political, rather than scientific, agenda

The gray wolf was reintroduced into the Northern Rocky Mountains in 1995. Today, there are approximately 1,700 wolves in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana – a significant resurgence, albeit a relatively small number of wolves for 328,417 square miles of territory. Nevertheless, those three states have campaigned tirelessly to delist the wolf in order to legalize wolf hunts and thereby cut back their allegedly unmanageable populations. Under such pressure, the Bush and Obama administrations agreed to delist the wolf, but the plan did not survive legal challenge.

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The court found the delisting agenda to be based on political rather than scientific reasons, an approach that did not withstand scrutiny under the plain language of the Endangered Species Act. Still, the anti-wolf contingent (including the governors and congressional delegations from all three states) persisted, arguing that the wolves needed culling because they were killing livestock and decimating the elk population. The diminishing number of elk, the argument goes, interferes with the rights of hunters.

Wolves lived in the Northern Rockies for centuries, along with the elk, until humans exterminated them. Having recently repopulated the region in comparatively small numbers, the wolves prey on the now record numbers of elk (there are over 371,000 elk in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho – well over optimal management levels).

The complaints of hunters fall flat

Hunters complain that the wolves – who hunt for survival using only their bodies – impede the hunters’ ability to hunt for fun with high-powered rifles. It bears noting that before wolves were extirpated from the region, they coexisted with humans with little incident. Those humans also hunted elk, but did so with bows, arrows, and spears. Despite the challenges posed by wolves, fewer elk, and low-tech gear, they managed to find enough game to survive.

It seems reasonable to assume that today’s hunters, whose survival depends more on supermarkets than elk, and who enjoy competitive advantages and a far larger elk population, could do likewise.

Benefits of wolves outweigh ranchers' concerns

The ranchers’ argument against wolves also withers under serious scrutiny. While it is true that wolves take a certain amount of livestock, it is also true that ranchers annually lose more cattle to lightning strikes, dog attacks, and noxious weeds than they do to wolves. The leading causes of livestock deaths are not wolves or other predators but bad weather, disease, and birthing complications. Even so, there are nonprofit groups with compensation programs in place to partially compensate ranchers who do suffer losses from wolf predation.

The benefits of having wolves in these ecosystems – even for ranchers – far outweigh livestock losses. Since wolves have been reintroduced to the region, the deer and elk populations have been brought under control, which has enabled nearly wiped out native tree and plant species to grow back. Concern for the ranchers might be better expressed by maintaining the health of the ecosystem – of which wolves are a vital part – and the range, thus protecting the ranchers, the ranchland, and the rest of the regional environment. Many ranchers are already making efforts in these directions.

Why are wolves part of a budget deal?

But perhaps more important than the weakness of the arguments for delisting the wolf is the fact that there is no good reason for this discussion to have taken place during these budget negotiations. The issue at hand was (or was supposed to be) the federal budget. There are legitimate policy differences about the ways, means, and even the need to bring federal revenues in line with spending, but this important national conversation has nothing to do with wolves.

Yet in defiance of logic and sound wildlife management, the two sides negotiated an agreement under which endangered wolves will die, and the deficit will remain. As the rest of the particulars of the deal come to light, one thing will remain clear: The true cost of this agreement has nothing to do with money. It will be paid in blood.

David N. Cassuto is the Class of 1946 Distinguished Visiting Professor of Environmental Law at Williams College and professor of Environmental Law at Pace Law School. He is the founder and chief contributor to the Animal Blawg, a blog on animal law and policy.

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