Saturday, July 29, 2017

Michigan Tech Professor John Vucetich testifies before Senate Committee: S. 1514 would weaken Endangered Species Act, strip wolves of protection

By Michele Bourdieu

 Michigan wolf. (File photo courtesy National Wolfwatcher Coalition)

HOUGHTON -- John Vucetich -- Michigan Tech professor in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science and co-director, with Michigan Tech Professor Rolf Peterson, of the Isle Royale Wolf-Moose study -- recently returned from Washington, DC, after testifying before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at the July 19 Legislative Hearing on S. 1514, the Hunting Heritage and Environmental Legacy Preservation (HELP) for Wildlife Act.

This bill would strip wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Wisconsin of all of their Endangered Species Act protections and prevent judges from ever reviewing that action. It has now passed out of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works and could be voted on at any time.

The bill is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of senators taking aim at these wolves and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Senators Barrasso (R-WY), Boozman (R-AR), Capito (R-WV), Cardin (D-MD), Baldwin (D-WI), and Klobuchar (D-MN) have signed onto this legislation that would put these wolves in the crosshairs of hunters and weaken the ESA.

In his testimony before the committee, Vucetich, a population biologist who is interested in the philosophy and ethics of ecological and conservation science, stated several reasons why this bill, S. 1514, should be opposed or amended.

"It includes some positive provisions, but its most important effect would be to undermine the Endangered Species Act and subvert the conservation of wolves," Vucetich told the Senate committee. "Wolves are valuable to ecosystems and most people recognize that wildlife -- including wolves -- possess value in their own right. Public support for wolves and wolf conservation, in particular, is very high. Public support for the Endangered Species Act is also high -- among both liberal and conservative constituents."

In his 15-page, well documented written statement to the committee, Vucetich states that wolf conservation in the United States is vital -- not only for the health of ecosystems but also for what they represent.

"If the bald eagle is sacred as a symbol of our national spirit, then wolves are sacred as a symbol of our relationship with nature on the whole," he writes.

Public support for wolves, ESA

Vucetich refers to sociological research showing that fewer than 10 percent of Americans are very opposed to wolves and that attitudes toward wolves have become increasingly positive over the past several decades. He also cites data that confirm strong support for the Endangered Species Act.

Vucetich gives examples that show why people have false impressions about wolves, including the misconception that they threaten human safety, while the truth is that wolves avoid people.*

"Incidents of wolves harming people are incredibly rare," he notes. "In the 21st century only two known deaths have been attributed to wild wolves in all of North America."

No deaths from wolves have been reported in the conterminous United States and more Americans are killed by bees or dogs or deer-car collisions than by wolves, he adds.

Vucetich also mentions some hunters are opposed to wolves because they feel wolves reduce the number of deer for them to hunt. He points out that, in fact, deer are too plentiful and more of a danger to human safety because of the number of deer-vehicle accidents.

Deer threaten human safety, property, agriculture

"For example, in Michigan, deer kill eight humans and injure another 1300 in deer-vehicle collisions each year," Vucetich says. "Deer ruin private property through more than 100 deer-vehicle collisions each day. Deer also cause significant damage to two important sectors of agriculture -- crop production and forestry. There are also rising concerns about chronic wasting disease in deer. Whatever effect wolves would have on deer would be an overall benefit."

While wolves have been a threat to livestock, Vucetich cites statistics that show these threats are often exaggerated; for example, a 2011 US Dept. of Agriculture report showing wolf depredation of cattle represents less than half of one percent of all losses. He also mentions the case in Michigan where a F.O.I.A. request and investigative journalism showed that most wolf depredations of livestock were attributable to one livestock owner who was eventually charged with violating animal welfare laws.**

Nonlethal vs. lethal control

Vucetich notes that nonlethal methods for controlling wolves have been effective, while lethal methods may be less effective than supposed and are controversial.

"There is a suite of nonlethal methods and strategies that have been effectively used," he says. "These include: nonlethal predator deterrents such as livestock guarding dogs, fencing and fladry; increasing human presence on the landscape through range riders; use of scare tactics and alarms; best management practices for livestock and land such as changing grazing strategies and removing carcasses."***

Wolf hunting not scientific

According to Vucetich, wolf hunting, motivated in part by state game and fish agencies’ interest to satisfy deer hunters, does not make sense. He challenges several reasons people give for wanting to hunt wolves: hatred of wolves, trophy hunting, protecting livestock and competition for deer.

Vucetich says both hatred and trophy hunting are bad reasons for hunting wolves, since wolves have ecological value. Hunting wolves to protect livestock is not scientific, he adds.

"Michigan’s government promoted wolf hunting through egregious misuse of science and disdain for basic principles of democracy," Vucetich writes. "Voting records indicate, in part, that citizens are aware of and do not support such abuses in the service of wolf hunting."

As for competition for deer, Vucetich notes, "Put simply, wolves do not represent significant competition with hunters for deer. Hunter success is influenced by factors aside from wolves, such as winter severity."

Endangered Species Act (ESA)

In December 2011, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) delisted gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes region from the ESA. In December 2014 a federal court rejected that delisting and ordered FWS to restore Endangered Species Act protections to those wolves.

"The broader pattern of court decisions indicate that the ESA requires a species to be well distributed throughout its historic range," Vucetich says. "Today wolves occupy about 15 percent of their former range (in the lower 48 states)."

In a recent interview with Keweenaw Now, Vucetich explained that the legal definition of an endangered species is "a species that is at risk of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range."

A second interpretation of the ESA, favored by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and state governments, is that ESA requirements have nothing to do with geographic range but just the risk of extinction, Vucetich added.

"What we're talking about is that we -- as Americans -- cannot agree on whether wolves should be considered endangered or not," he said. "The reason there is uncertainty is that we -- the American people -- are uncertain about the law."

For Vucetich, the reason wolves should not be delisted is the 15 percent -- indicating wolves are not well distributed throughout their historic range.

In his statement to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Vucetich states the following: "Addressing this concern would require the FWS to:

(i)    Develop policy on 'significant portion of range' that is consistent with the ESA. I believe the courts will eventually decide that the current Fish and Wildlife Service policy on this topic is inconsistent with the ESA. ('Significant portion of its range' is a key phrase in the legal definition of endangered species.)
(ii)    Develop a robust national plan for wolf conservation and recovery."

In his conclusion, Vucetich calls for support of the ESA and wolf conservation.

"Our relationship with wolves is a bellweather for our relationship with nature and the nation’s natural resources," Vucetich writes. "For similar reasons, our treatment of wolves through the U.S. Endangered Species Act, 1973 (ESA) is also a bellweather for how we will treat the ESA in general and for the hundreds of species whose well-being depends on ESA protection."

In a July 26, 2017, press release, the Center for Biological Diversity also states reasons for opposing Senate Bill S. 1514.

"The bill weakens the Endangered Species Act by blocking any further judicial review of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2011 decision to end federal protections for wolves," the Center says. "Since they were driven to near-extinction by hunters and trappers in the early 20th century, gray wolves still occupy only 15 percent of their historical range in the contiguous United States. And between 2011, when their protection was removed, and 2014, when a federal court restored that protection, more than 1,500 animals were killed."

Inset photo: Professor John Vucetich. (Photo courtesy Michigan Technological University)

Editor's Notes:

* In his July 19 testimony before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (article 3.2), John Vucetich gives examples from Michigan of a state senator and a state official who gave false accounts of wolves threatening humans in order to gain support for their anti-wolf agenda. Click here to read Vucetich's entire testimony.

** For background on this issue, see research on wolf depredation in Michigan by Nancy Warren, National Wolfwatcher Coalition Great Lakes Regional director, in our Aug. 25, 2013, article, "Wolf advocates kick off second petition drive, seek referendum on Michigan wolf hunt law."

*** According to Wikipedia, "Fladry is a line of rope mounted along the top of a fence, from which are suspended strips of fabric or colored flags that will flap in a breeze, intended to deter wolves from crossing the fence-line."

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