PORTLAND — With the deadline for public comments approaching, environmental groups are rallying their members in an effort to keep federal endangered species protections for gray wolves in the Lower 48 states.
An estimated 50 people gathered May 6 outside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service headquarters in Portland, protesting the Trump administration’s proposal to remove wolves from the federal endangered species list and return management to state wildlife officials.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced the plan to delist wolves in March. A 60-day public comment period ends May 14.
Amaroq Weiss, senior West Coast wolf advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said environmentalists asked the Fish and Wildlife Service to hold community hearings and extend the comment period by 30 days, but the agency declined to respond.
In response, several groups decided to hold their own meetings — including rallies in Portland, Denver and Sacramento, Calif.
The Portland event began with the protest, where U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., addressed the crowd. Blumenauer opposes wolf delisting, a move he called “deeply concerning” in an earlier statement.
From there, the group marched to a nearby hotel where Weiss spoke as part of a panel discussion with Michael Paul Nelson, a professor of environmental philosophy and ethics at Oregon State University. Members of the public also provided comments in support of wolves, which Weiss said will be transcribed and delivered to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
So far, Weiss said the campaign has collected 225,000 “digital” comments and 26,000 hand-written comments from people who oppose delisting.
“They value wolves,” Weiss said. “They recognize that a species that only exists at 1% of its former numbers, and less than 10 or 15% of its former range, cannot by any stretch of the imagination be called recovered.”
Gray wolves were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1974 after being driven to near extinction in the Lower 48. Tens of thousands still live in Canada and Alaska. Since then, the population has rebounded to more than 6,000 individuals in the Lower 48, though Weiss said historical numbers in the Western U.S. and Mexico were as high as 380,000.
The ESA allows a species to be listed if it is threatened or endangered in a “significant portion of its range.” In 2014, Weiss said the Center for Biological Diversity analyzed 27 studies by scientists modeling suitable habitat for wolves, based on criteria such as forest cover, prey density and road density.
According to the results, Weiss said there are at least 530,000 square miles of identified habitat, yet wolves currently occupy just one-third of it.
“The standard that’s being applied to wolves doesn’t really make sense,” she said.
Western ranchers argue the region’s wolf population is healthy, spreading and increasing in numbers. They say state wildlife managers are better able to tailor how the predators are managed, including around livestock, which are often attacked and killed.
Wolves have already been taken off the federal endangered species list in the eastern one-third of Oregon and Washington state and in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. They are still protected and managed under state law.
In a joint statement, Jennifer Houston, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and Bob Skinner, president of the Public Lands Council, praised wolf recovery as a “conservation success story,” but added that the ESA “rarely functions as Congress originally intended.”
“Radical environmental activists use an endless cycle of lawsuits and procedural tricks to thwart effective conservation,” Houston and Skinner wrote. “That is why it has taken so long to delist the gray wolf, even though science has long shown the species had reached stable population levels.”