TRAVERSE CITY — Federal officials offered a staunch defense Monday of their proposal to drop legal protections for the gray wolf in most of the country, as opponents rallied in the nation’s capital before the first in a series of public hearings on the plan.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service called for removing the wolf from the endangered species list for the lower 48 states in June, except for a subspecies called the Mexican wolf in the Southwest, which is struggling to survive. Ranching and hunting groups have praised the proposal, while environmentalists have said it is premature.
A final decision will be made within a year, following a scientific analysis of the agency’s proposal and three public hearings, the first of which was being held Monday in Washington. The others are scheduled for Wednesday in Sacramento, Calif., and Friday in Albuquerque, N.M., although officials said they will be postponed if the government partially shuts down because of the fight in Congress over the health care overhaul.
Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe acknowledged the fierce opposition to the wolf plan from many advocacy groups, scientists and members of Congress. They say the predator remains in a tenuous position despite bouncing back from the last century, when trapping, shooting and poisoning encouraged by federal bounties left just a few hundred survivors in Minnesota by the time they were placed on the protected list in 1974.
“There’s certainly no more polarizing issue than wolves,” Ashe said.
But he said the agency’s mission is not to restore an endangered species in every place it once lived. Rather, it is to ensure that a species is established and thriving in enough places that it won’t die out.
“Recovery of the wolf is one of the greatest conservation success stories in the history of our nation ... a poster child of what we can achieve through the protections of the Endangered Species Act even for our most imperiled species,” Ashe said.