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Lifting Federal Protections For Gray Wolves Could Keep Them From Returning To Missouri

A gray wolf
John and Karen Hollingsworth/USFWS
Acting U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced Wednesday that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to remove federal protections for the endangered gray wolf. The species has been extinct in Missouri since the 1950s.

Wildlife conservationists worry that a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to remove federal protections for the endangered gray wolf will hurt efforts to restore the species in states where it has disappeared, such as Missouri.

Although the species is native to Missouri, the state has not had gray wolves since the 1950s, largely due to hunting, habitat loss and landowners killing them for preying on livestock. Today, only about 5,000 live in the western Great Lakes and Northern Rockies regions.

The current population isn’t large enough for federal wildlife managers to conclude that the gray wolf has recovered, said Regina Mossotti, director of animal care and conservation at the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka. The surviving gray wolves constitute 10 percent of the species’ historic population in the lower 48 states.

“That would be like if someone was in a major accident, goes into the ICU, gets checked out and then gets sent home right away without fully being able to recover,” Mossotti said.

The Endangered Wolf Center does not have gray wolves, but conservationists at the center try to raise awareness about them. Mossotti previously worked on efforts to reintroduce gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park, where the species had been absent for decades. The removal of gray wolves caused major detrimental changes to Yellowstone, because the wolves kept elk and deer populations in check, she said.

“Elk populations, deer populations skyrocketed,” Mossotti said. “They ate everything down to the dirt. When trees would fall over, no new trees would replace them. And [conservationists] saw a loss of diversity in that area of wildlife species, from birds to butterflies to amphibians, because there weren’t habitat for those species, there wasn’t food for them or shelter.”

When gray wolves returned to Yellowstone, the diversity of species at the park greatly improved, she said.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has tried many times to delist the gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act due to increased numbers, but courts have rejected those attempts several times. Acting Secretary David Bernhardt announced the proposal Wednesday, and the department will begin a public-comment period to receive feedback on the rule when it is posted to the federal register.

“Recovery of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act is a one of our nation's great conservation successes, with the wolf joining other cherished species, such as the bald eagle, that have been brought back from the brink with the help of the Endangered Species Act,” said a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson in an email.

If the Department of the Interior finalizes the rule, then states and tribes will be in charge of conserving gray wolves.

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.