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HOWLColorado response to Mark French press release

In the light of the press release from Mark French, which we posted in its entirety, we feel it necessary to write and publish a response.

Mr. French makes a number of claims about wolves, much can very easily be viewed as a smokescreen attempting to emotionally charge what he feels is a usable political issue. However, without fully removing the confusion, the claims could certainly be considered seductively easy to believe.

HOWLColorado won’t respond directly to the parasite claims made in the press release, but instead will direct readers to a much better qualified resource which is the Q&A which Dr. L. David Mech did with the International Wolf Center. You can find that here – Reality Check: Western Wolves and Parasites 

However, the arguments made in the press release related to the “native” subspecies vs. reintroduced subspecies must be addressed.

Here are the facts:

“Wolf advocates have classified the many wolf subspecies in to 5 groups”

Presumably “wolf advocates” means “biologists.” Who are not necessarily pro-wolf, or even involved in the discussion which Mr. French is trying to involve them in. In fact, some think there are as many as 32 different subspecies of canis lupus (Grey wolf). Some biologists – including L. David Mech – believe there are actually too many sub specific designations currently being used. I.e. they are assigning subspecies designations based insignificant sample sizes.  The differentiating factors are size, weight, color, cranial measurement and geographic location. However these can vary significantly within a subspecies itself. And wolves can have massive ranges which will allow the subspecies to interbreed. Ronald Nowak took this a step further by examining the skulls of wolves and reduced the 24 north American subspecies down to only five! However for this article, we accept that biologists believed there were a large number of wolf subspecies during the time period being discussed.

Twenty four of those subspecies are/were found on the north American continent.

The two subspecies (which Mr. French interesting refers to as groups of subspecies – the first instance of revisionist history) in question here are canis lupus nubilus and canis lupus occidentalis. 

Canis lupus nubilus – native wolf to Montana?

Canis lupus nubilus was very close to being wiped out in the 1930s – so close that it was considered extinct. The Endangered Species Act protected this species in 1974. The Great Plains Wolf (or the Buffalo Wolf) is a widespread wolf subspecies which spreads all the way through central Canada up to Alaska and through the western half of the United States.

 The subspecies which (for this discussion) should be considered the “native” species for Montana would be canis lupus irremotus – which Ronald Nowak tied to the nubilus subspecies in 1992.

More… much more… on this later – this gets very convoluted. However the legal battles over this revolved around irremotus and occidentalis, not nubilus (because the reclassification of the subspecies had not yet occurred).

It is with a strong dose of revisionist history that Mark French has picked to represent nubilus as the “native” species of Montana – it is also politically expedient.

This was not the viewpoint at the time, and not the information which the USFWS or the courts had at their disposal as modern-day scientific fact. Therefore for this particular claim, nubilus was not the accepted “native” subspecies of Montana. It was, at the time, irremotus, a species reasonably classified as extinct and all the decisions at the time were made with that in mind.

Canis lupus occidentalis

Canis lupus occidentalis (Rocky Mountain Wolf – some call it the MacKenzie Valley Wolf or the Alaskan Tundra wolf – this alone gives you an idea of how widespread this wolf is) wolves are the subspecies found in western Canada, the western US and Alaska and were used as the base for the reintroduction of wolves into Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

One  claim in the press release is that canis lupus occidentalis is “much larger” than canis lupus nubilus.

The one thing which research will reveal about this particular claim is that the wolves in both subspecies vary massively. The general concensus, however, is that the occidentalis is generally 5-15 lbs heavier than the nubilus, and measure about 6 inches longer, and 2 inches taller.

However, the interesting thing to note here is that the wolves of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming while initially taken from a population which was composed of wolves with a good diet and a little more size than other subspecies, this has changed over the last 15 years. After killing 188 wolves in Idaho, there is one slight upside to a wolf hunt – you get to weigh all the animals killed during the 2009 hunt. With 188 wolves representing a more than acceptable statistical sample of all the wolves in the region, the fact that the average weight of these wolves is less than 100lbs certainly brings in to question the assertions made by Mr. French. Certainly not the wolf behemoths that some would have us believe.

Breaching the Endangered Species Act?

The other thing which the press release states is:

“It is important to note that the CLN subspecies is considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), whereas the CLO subspecies is not.”

Here’s where it gets kind of messy and confusing. Which serves Mr. French’s purposes well. The ESA protects wolves or other animals based on their location, not their subspecies. Canis lupus nubilus is endangered in Michigan and Wisconsin, it is listed as threatened in Minnesota… as you will see from the below explanation…  Any wolf found in Wisconsin or Michigan would be offered full protection, any wolf found in Minnesota would be offered the protections given to threatened species. The subspecies is not considered.  Notice the careful wording of the press release.

In 1973 the Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf (the aforementioned canis lupus irremotus) was listed as an endangered species. In 1978, the entire species (canis lupus) was listed as endangered – with an exception being made for Minnesota where they were listed as a threatened species.

Section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act covers the handling of essential and nonessential experimental populations as they pertain to reintroduction programs. The wolf recovery plan included establishing such a population of wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

Mr. French’s claims, while picking his subspecies for political reasons, echo the case of Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation vs. Babbitt – where the “native” population of canis lupus irremotus and the introduced experimental population of canis lupus occidentalis were different enough that the argument was that it violated the previously referrenced Section 10(j) of the ESA.

The defense at that time was that Yellowstone National Park had no indiginous existing wolf populations in the areas of reintroduction and since there was no available canis lupus irremotus wolves for reintroduction that they had to draw from the very healthy Canadian gray wolf population. Remember, no 20/20 hindsight here. We now know that irremotus was likely just a member of the nubilus subspecies, but at the time, they didn’t know that.

In a criminal case, United States vs. McKittrick, saw Chad McKittrick killed a Yellowstone wolf, Number 10.

Number 10 and his mate, number 9, were looking to find a safe place to den, but had left the confines of Yellowstone National Park to do so.  This was, by the way, a particularly nasty execution of the wolf as a witness described it. McKittrick was charged for violating the ESA. He was sentenced to 6 months in jail.

However, he appealed the conviction stating that the ESA could not protect the wolf he shot. The argument (much as Mr. French is claiming) was that the reintroduction of the Canadian gray wolves was violating the ESA:

1) FWS may not draw members of an experimental population from an unlisted population, such as the Canadian grey wolf.
2) the experimental population is invalid because it is not ‘wholly separate geographically’ from naturally occuring wolves in the release area.

The Ninth Circuit court denied the appeal for the following reasons:

a) Gray wolves are protected by the ESA based on where they are found, not where they originate. This logic applies to the simple case of a wolf crossing the border from Canada to America of it’s own accord. That wolf would automatically become protected as soon as it crossed the border.
b) If the FWS could draw only from listed species for reintroduction, the experimental populations could only be created by depleting threatened or endangered populations in the United States. This, in the eyes of the court, “offends the statute’s essential purpose, which is the conservation of species.”
c) The Wyoming district court (whom McKittrick cited as when arguing that the “wholly seperate” requirement applied to individuals as well as “populations,” read section 10(j) to apply to individual specimens as well as populations. The Ninth Circuit determined that the FWS, and not the Wyoming district court, was reasonable in it’s interpretation that the “wholly separate geographically” applied only to populations. The exact statement from the court was “this interpretation [by the FWS] is reasonable and we decline to disturb it.”  

But it doesn’t stop there. Wyoming district court determined, in opposition to the FWS’ assertions that a population cannot be a lone wolf, that single wolves could represent a population and therefore wholly separate geographic locations for reintroduction programs had been a requirement violated by the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. The Ninth Circuit disagreed.

So, on we go to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

This court, in a very detailed opinion, addressed all the various complaints individually. Which is what we will do too.

1) Urbigkits’ claim that “Canadian” wolves were a genetically distinct subspecies from the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf and therefore should not have been used for reintroduction.

The court response was that it agreed with both previous courts and that the FWS was reasonable in believing that the subspecies irremotus was effectively extinct and that since the species effectively no longer existed that it would be impossible to use it for reintroduction. Therefore “Canadian” wolves were acceptable.

2) Allegation that the FWS violated ESA section 10(j)(2)(A) by failing to release the experimental population “outside the current range of such species.” �

The court rejected this argument stating that the definition of “current range” was unnecessarily rigid. The plaintiff argument was that “current range” should mean “territory occupied by an individual wolf.” The court noted that while Congress did not define “current range,” they did define “species” to “constitute distinct interbreeding population segments” not individual animals. The court’s decision reflected this and that “by definition, then, an individual animal does not a species, population or population segmenta make.”

3) The introduction of the experimental population violated the ESA section 10(j)(1)’s requirement that experimental populations be “wholly seperate geographically” from nonexperimental populations of the same species. Even a lone straggler would create a violation.

The court stated that Congress did not define the relevent terms or address the question directly. Therefore, they concluded that in the “spirit of flexibility” that Congress intentionally left the decision up to the Secretary. They therefore deferred the interpretation of the terms up to the administrative agency. Based on the definition of population provided by the FWS and that the Secretary and the FWS reasonably determined there were no populations of naturally occuring wolves that there was no violation.

4) Environmental groups were also part of this decision as they argued that a wolf which wanders from a natural population into an experimental population would lose protection.

The court mirrored the Ninth Circuit decision on this stating that a wolf, no matter its origin, is subject to the protections based on where it is. Therefore a naturally occuring wolf walking into an experimental population would then be treated as if it were part of the experimental population. The reverse, of course, is true.

What you should take from this article is that there is a lot of mess surrounding the various classifications of subspecies and that Mr. French’s attempt to simplify the situation and cherry pick the elements which best suit his political position is just that, purely political.

If it will make anyone feel better, the wolves introduced into Montana, Idaho and Wyoming will likely, due to environmental influences, accessibility to different types of prey and the darwinistic selection of which animals breed, go through their own variations.

In short, HOWLColorado asks that you brush aside a lot of this smoke and look at the very core of what Mr. French is saying he wants. And that is a significant decrease in the number of wolves in Montana, which is not an unexpected position for a rancher. Responsible management, use of federal/state funds to introduce non-lethal wolf management and deterrence projects and full education of the public is what a political candidate should be running on. This is an attempt to obscure the issues, while combining it with fear tactics, to garner votes through scaring people while making everything sound entirely supported by science.

Resources used:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service species profile: Gray wolf
International Wolf Center
U.S. Forest Service species database: Gray wolf
The “Wholly Separate” truth: Did the Yellowstone Wolf Reintroduction Violate Section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act?

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