In the ensuing confusion after the historic Cedar wildfire last October, rumors flitted around regarding the California Wolf Center (CWC), near Julian. Erroneous reports of dramatic wolf escape plans-reminiscent of lupine versions of Free Willy-were nonsense, said CWC director Pat Valentino, but the folks at the Wolf Center did appreciate the resulting spike in attendance the stories sparked.
Like the duplicitous folklore of wolves, the conservation politics surrounding their repopulation isn't always what it seems. Threats can come, ironically, from those most instrumental in wolf recovery efforts. Last April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surprised many by reclassifying, or down-listing, most wild wolf populations in the lower 48 states, changing their status from "endangered" to "threatened."
But, Valentino said, Ed Bangs, the northwest region wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is "is in no way hostile to wolf recovery." He is, actually, "very much responsible for instituting a lot of the success of the recovery," he said.
"The wolf was once protected in all lower 48 except Minnesota," Valentino told CityBeat, "but then, the federal government has begun this push to-basically committing to pulling out," of its participation in wolf recovery programs. "All the people who did this job are under the policy of this agency-though more likely now it's the [Bush] administration" that's proposing to remove wolves from the endangered species list, which has protected them since 1974.
If officially approved, proposed de-listing of wild wolves would transfer management to the states-only a Mexican Wolf sub-species in the southwest would remain under federal protection. The down-listings last spring were decried by wolf advocates as dangerously premature, and debates typical of the wolf's controversial history in North America have returned.
Valentino said argued that under the Clinton administration, Fish and Wildlife would not have moved to de-list a species so soon.
"Some of the recovery programs have been very successful," Valentino said. "If you're sitting in Yellowstone park [today], you can say, "Wow, what a great success.' Now, in the whole Rocky Mountain eco-system, we've got about 800 wolves. But there were several hundred thousand wolves in the lower 48 states before. Plus, there are plenty of other places where wolves can recover," Valentino argued.
"We should have recovery in places that can support wolf habitat" to ensure healthy conditions for species recovery. "When you get behind why they're not, you find it's not that wolves can't adapt to people or new habitat. It's almost always, can we adapt to them?"
The reclassifications have led, not surprisingly, to lawsuits. Sixteen different environmental groups-led by Defenders of Wildlife-charged Fish and Wildlife with Endangered Species Act violations, though many expect the litigation to do little more than buy the wolves time.
"Wolves have been reclassified as threatened and not endangered," Ed Bangs told CityBeat about the recent decisions. "In California, for example, we've reclassified them as threatened and not endangered, which basically doesn't mean much different except that you're saying they're not in as much danger of extinction."
But there are no known wild wolf populations in California, are there?
"Nope. Not one, " Bangs chuckled. "See that's kind of a complicated legal thing. Under the ESA, you can only list a species, a sub-species or a specific distinct population segment. So if you look at the Gray wolves, we've got three separate populations in three separate regions, so we're saying you've got recovery of genetics separated by region and population, so they're survival is ensured."
Bangs acknowledged he expects stiff opposition to Fish and Wildlife's position, but, he said, it's important to trust the processes built into the ESA.
"See, before we can officially propose de-listing, this is the process," Bangs explained. "If we decide to de-list, there is a mandatory five-year testing period. There's a lot of safeguards built into this act. We take all the legal and conservation and scientific facts into consideration, using peer reviews passed from biologists to the state and back to us. Only then, if we decide all the reasons required are there, will we actually publish an official proposal for de-listing. And even that report will undergo many opportunities for debate and hearings and public input.
"I'm sure it will be very controversial if we indeed decide to propose de-listing."
Bangs stressed that federal ESA protection isn't a lifetime membership. It's supposed to be temporary.
"The ESA is not an employment guarantee for wildlife conservationists like us," laughed Bangs. "It's not our job to keep them on the [endangered species] list. What we're saying is, we've done our job according to the stated goals outlined for us by the act. Now it's someone else's job to take it from here."
But the pending lawsuits brought against Fish and Wildlife seek to prove otherwise-that recovery successes in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho are not sufficient evidence of the wolf's full return to the rest of North America.
"There are five criteria required by the ESA for either listing or de-listing a species," explained Amaroq Weiss, western director of species conservation for Defenders of Wildlife. "It's our belief those threats do still exist." Though, she added, her group does regard the Rocky Mountain wolf populations, which total nearly 800 in recovery, as wildly successful. "Where we fundamentally differ is that it's not appropriate to down-list the status of wolves across nine western states based solely on their success in three states.
"Not to take away from the work and success they [Fish and Wildlife] have had so far. We just consider it very inappropriate to prematurely de-list before all criteria have been met."
"The animals on the ESA shouldn't be on the list forever. The point is to work them off by healthy recovery," Valentino agreed, but he argued the states aren't ready to take over yet.
"If we take wolves off now, prematurely, bordering states will have different policy and laws regarding how they treat wolves," Valentino argued. "The wolf's not gonna know, that's for sure. So it could easily affect recovery if they re-populate states without experience or a solid plan. The bottom line is the states will almost always rely on "management' of wolves, which means killing them."
Bangs was diplomatic but stood firm in his claim that the job at the federal level is mostly done.
"I understand the Defenders' argument," he said. "That if we leave wolf conservation up to a state like Nevada, they're never going to have them there. We need federal authority to cram it down these states' throats. But we're saying it's not our job to do that forever."
Bangs thinks states are not unlike the wolf here, being judged without a proper trial.
"The best and biggest strides in wildlife management [have] been made by state fish and game departments and the sportsmen," Bangs said. "The only reason we can even think to reintroduce wolves is because of state game and sportsmen efforts. Look at mountain lions-states have proven the proper place for wildlife management is with the states, as long as they can promise similar plans and commitments for wolves. I mean, if we can get them to build on what we've done.
"It's the real success story of the ESA."
Or, maybe not. Two weeks ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service was forced to delay asking for wolves to be de-listed in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho because, among other concerns, Wyoming announced plans for "dual classification" of wolves as both predators-subject to killing at any time in any way-and as trophy game, regulated by seasonal hunting laws and permits.
Bangs has learned to expect such absurdities in the highly subjective business of "wolf politics," circa 2004.
"Wolves and wolf management has nothing to do with reality, I always say," Bangs offered. "It has everything to do with symbolism. The founding of Rome. The stories of wolves tearing about little girls in red cloaks. It's all tied to this. It's all about humans arguing with each other about what they think wolves are. Not their true role in nature."
Photo: "Chaco," a Mexican wolf captive bred for reintroduction, at the California Wolf Center, Julian.