Congress holds oversight hearing on wolf management

The House Committee on Natural Resources Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held an oversight hearing on Wednesday, Sept. 21, to discuss the status of the federal government’s management of wolves. The hearing took a critical look at multiple aspects of federal and state wolf management across the United States.

The witness panel for the hearing was comprised of seven individuals representing diverse interests, from federal and state wildlife agencies to academia and livestock production. Before a standing-room-only crowd, the panel provided comments about the management of gray wolves (Canis lupus), red wolves (C. rufus), and Mexican wolves (C. lupus baileyi).

Witnesses representing state agencies cited examples in which states effectively managed delisted wolf populations. Virgil Moore, Director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, described the situation in Idaho, where there are nearly 800 gray wolves today – well above the federal recovery criteria of at least 150 wolves in the state. Despite this, Moore described the “tortuous path” full of legal roadblocks and post-delisting management restrictions, spurred by public outcry about the delisting decision, that his agency faced before an act of Congress finally granted Idaho’s government the authority to manage wolves in the state. Moore’s testimony argued that states are better able to address stakeholder concerns about wolves, and encouraged the federal government to remove wolves from the endangered species list whenever scientific evidence warrants delisting.

Both witnesses and committee members scrutinized federal management programs, with particular emphasis on USFWS’s red wolf recovery program in North Carolina. Chairman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) questioned Steve Guertin, Deputy Director of Policy for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, about the justification of expanding the red wolf captive breeding program when previous efforts at a smaller scale ultimately proved unsuccessful. Guertin asserted that underlying science called for an increase in genetic diversity, therefore requiring more animals in the breeding program.

Furthermore, Ranking Member Debbie Dingell (D-MI) asked John Vucetich, Associate Professor at Michigan Technological School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, for clarification as to whether or not the red wolf even qualified as a species eligible for Endangered Species Act listing, considering recent scientific evidence suggesting that red wolves are hybrids of other canids. Vucetich asserted that, despite evolutionary history, red wolves are eligible for ESA listing because “it is possible to have genes from more than one source and not be a hybrid.”

When discussions turned to the Mexican wolf, much of the focus was on a lack of effective collaboration between state and federal wildlife agencies. Alexandra Sandoval, Director of the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, referenced a “lack of trust” between state agencies and USFWS regarding Mexican wolf recovery, stating that the federal agency did not adequately garner stakeholder support before proceeding with reintroduction efforts. Representative Gohmert mirrored this opinion in his opening statement for the hearing, saying that “USFWS has not worked effectively with stakeholders that use our public lands, nor has it worked effectively with landowners or states in its recovery efforts.”

Tom Paterson, owner of Spur Ranch Cattle Company; and Brian Bean, owner of Lava Lake Lamb, both provided testimony on the impacts of wolves on livestock production. “For every wolf kill you find, there are at least five that you don’t,” said Paterson, citing a USFWS estimate that suggests livestock producers may lose more animals to wolves than they realize. Representative Beyer (D-VA) countered this argument by reminding those in attendance that “we slaughter 5,000 cows for every one that is killed by a gray wolf.” Bean referenced examples of non-lethal control efforts being successful at reducing livestock depredation, but agreed that lethal control needed to remain an option in order to address stakeholder concerns.

USFWS listed the gray wolf, red wolf, and Mexican wolf under the ESA due to threats from unregulated hunting, extermination efforts, and a decrease in habitat and prey availability. While wolf populations have recovered in many areas, the management process is complicated by uncertainties about the recovery of distinct population segments or even the validity of certain species distinctions. Further discussions are necessary to determine the most effective way to manage and recover wolf species in ways that adequately address stakeholder concerns.

Read TWS’ Position Statement on Wolf Restoration and Management in the contiguous United States.

Header Image: Mexican gray wolf. ©Don Burkett