Today is the 35th anniversary of the ESA. Michael J. Robinson wrote the essay below for this forum-

Thirty five years ago today, on December 28, 1973, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law the Endangered Species Act, intended not just to stave off extinction, but more broadly to conserve the ecosystems on which endangered species depend.

Natural ecosystems can exhibit a tremendous resilience as plants and animals adapt to new opportunities and threats to their survival and reproduction. The Endangered Species Act itself displays some of the dynamic resilience of ecosystems.

As the Bush administration attempts for a fourth time to remove from the endangered species list one of the first creatures placed on the list – the gray wolf – it is worth noting that the federal agency that originally brought wolves to the brink of extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with a stroke of a pen thirty-five years ago was charged with protecting them. Its old habits have been hard to change.

In 1915, Congress appropriated $125,000 to an obscure agency of scientific investigators, the Bureau of Biological Survey, to destroy animals “injurious to agriculture.” Growing annual appropriations along with payments by other federal, state, local and private entities, induced the Survey and its successor, the Fish and Wildlife Service, to switch from science to extermination for its fiscal sustenance. The agency systematically trapped, poisoned and shot every wolf it could locate. Even before killing the last native wolf in the West in 1945, in Colorado, the Fish and Wildlife Service increasingly targeted the more resilient coyotes and then the rodents that the declining coyotes would have controlled. Along the way, it killed some of the last blackfooted ferrets, California condors and southwestern jaguars, even as Congress passed endangered species protection laws in 1966 and 1969.

After Boy Scouts in Wyoming found poisoned eagles in 1970, and widespread illicit poisoning throughout the West came to light the following year, President Nixon appointed a special committee on predator control. The committee’s report accused the Fish and Wildlife Service and its allies in the livestock industry of “a high degree of built-in resistance to change,” and advised, among other measures, a new law to protect endangered predators.

What ensued through cooperation between the Republican administration and the Democratic chairman of the House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation, the patient, indefatigable John D. Dingell, was a broad and muscular law requiring the Fish and Wildlife Service to develop science-based recovery plans for listed animals and plants, designate critical habitat, and veto any federal action that would jeopardize them or adversely modify their critical habitats.

The act helped protect wolves migrating from Canada into Idaho and Montana in the 1970s and ’80’s, and led to reintroduction into Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 1995. Today, around 1,500 wolves inhabit those three states — honing the instincts of deer and moose, provisioning scavengers such as bears and eagles, lowering coyote numbers while increasing foxes (which the coyotes prey on), and even nurturing saplings along low-visibility streambanks that are now avoided by wolf-wary elk. Beavers and songbirds benefit from the resurgence of willows and cottonwoods that have matured in the 13 years since reintroduction.

But the act also permits exceptions to its protections, which have enabled Fish and Wildlife Service to authorize the killing, so far since reintroduction, of at least 931 northern Rockies wolves, including all 27 members of the Hog Heaven pack in Montana this month – the seventh entire pack, pups and all, wiped out in the state this year.

In Mexico, the southernmost and smallest gray wolf subspecies, the Mexican gray wolf, or lobo, persisted through the first half of the twentieth century despite a price on its head. Lobos would occasionally lope north into their vacant habitats in southern Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, where government traps and poison awaited them. In 1950, the Fish and Wildlife Service persuaded authorities in Mexico to accept American poison, and began training Mexican ranchers in its application. After passage of the Endangered Species Act, only five Mexican wolves could be captured for captive breeding, and none have been confirmed alive in Mexico since 1980.

In 1998, descendants of those last survivors were reintroduced into a small portion of Arizona and New Mexico. But in 2004, the Fish and Wildlife Service ordered the shooting of a wolf that, months before, had killed four head of cattle, but which harbored DNA found in no other surviving wolves. Loss of this and other genetically valuable wolves from a tiny founding population is now causing inbreeding depression manifested in lower litter sizes.

Notwithstanding that today only around 50 Mexican wolves survive in the wild, the Fish and Wildlife Service has snubbed New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who sought to halt federal trapping and shooting of these animals. In March 2005, the agency suspended indefinitely meetings of its recovery team that is charged with identifying suitable additional habitat for the Mexican wolf and developing benchmarks for recovery.

To be removed from the endangered species list, animals and plants must be reestablished and secure throughout all significant portions of their ranges. But the Bush administration has ignored this responsibility in its three previous attempts to delist wolves from portions of their range – each enjoined in federal courts. Wolves occupy less than five percent of their original range. State wolf management plans in Wyoming and Idaho promise to reduce wolf numbers and range even further.

Will wolves be allowed to resuscitate broader ecosystems, or will they be confined to untenable islands of habitat where continued persecution still threatens their survival? The Endangered Species Act, like the web of life, has never faced a greater test.

–  – – –

Michael J. Robinson is is a conservation advocate for the Center for BiologicalDiversity, and author of Predatory Bureaucracy: The Extermination of Wolves
and the Transformation of the West (University Press of Colorado, 2005). He lives by the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area in New Mexico.

About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan's Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of "Hiking Idaho." He also wrote "Beyond the Tetons" and "Backpacking Wyoming's Teton and Washakie Wilderness." He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

9 Responses to Endangered Species Act 35th anniversary and wolves

  1. Rick Hammel says:

    This is a very good, short essay on the wolf. It is very clear and easy to read. It is very accurate.

    As I posted earlier, in another thread, Michael is at the forefront of the conservation of the lobo. It is my belief that he is one person fighting a neverending battle agaist the FWS and the livestock industry. He needs all the help that can be mustered.

    How much help can be expected from Ken Salazar is questionable. His brother John, sent me a two page letter why he supported Richard Pombo’s attempt to rewrite the ESA. At that time, I told John salazar that I would not vote for him again. I live in the CO 3rd CD.

    The only way we can get Ken to act in the wolf’s interest, is to apply citizen pressure to both he and Obama. Can we do it?


  2. IzabelaM says:

    You said ”
    The only way we can get Ken to act in the wolf’s interest, is to apply citizen pressure to both he and Obama. Can we do it?”
    I have voiced my opinion about Salazar to Obama transition team, I have called and sent e-mails and I hope most of people intersted in welfare of predators did.
    Looks like our voices were/are not heard.

    I think the biggest issue is our public not knowing, understadning and in most cases not really caring about predators when they can’t put food on their tables.
    If most people did not know about the massacre of buffalo in 2008 (even some ranges from other parks), how many people will know about wolves.
    I think, the only way to get people informed and caring is to get press to talk more about our environment, protection of parks and animals. long as regular folks lose jobs and worry about bills,
    only those who know and want to know will fight for the predators and OUR lands used in abusive leases.

  3. Laura says:

    I would love to see this printed in my local paper. I don’t live in a western state but the newpaper where I live did print my letter to the editor last spring when the wolves were delisted.
    Ralph, If we gave our local paper information to Mr. Robinson do you think he would submit this as an editorial? I would think most papers would accept it by e-mail and making it less time-intensive for him.

  4. Laura,

    I sent Robinson your email address and a copy of your message.

    Ralph Maughan

  5. JB says:

    Folks might also be interested to know that concerns about predator control were raised well before 1970, most famously in the 1963 Leopold Report on Wildlife Management in the National Parks (see:

    In particular, folks on this site might want to take a look at the section entitled “Control” which describes the collapse of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd in 1919-1920 and efforts to reduce the herd through aerial gunning in the early 1960s. Note, the estimate of carrying capacity: 5,000 elk.

  6. Robert Hoskins says:

    Actually, the concern for the ecological effects of predator control go back “officially” to a conference of the American Society of Mammologists in 1930. The proceedings of that conference are in the Society’s 1930 journal. Of course, concerns among biologists went back before that. But this is the first time it was widely publicized. That concern entered the National Park service in 1934 with what’s known as Fauna No. 1, a survey of wildlife in the national parks, written primarily by biologist George Wright. It was Wright’s personal wealth and drive that pushed the National Park Service in the direction of science, something the NPS is still leary of, as we see with bison.

    At the same time, both the Murie brothers, Olaus and his younger half-brother Adolph, were investigating the roles of predators in ecosystems as government scientists. Adolph’s study of coyotes in Yellowstone National Park, published as Fauna No. 4 by the NPS, was a critical study of a predator and its prey; it was followed by his more famous study of wolves in McKinley National Park.

    It is with the early scientific interest in predators and concern for the negative impacts of predator control where the concept of “natural regulation” began, well before the Leopold Report of 1963 that JB mentions.

  7. JB says:

    I didn’t mean to suggest the Leopold Report began concerns about predator control (especially among scientists); rather, the deliberations and subsequent report of the Leopold committee was a highly-publicized event that helped catalyze concern among the masses. Interestingly, the committee’s report coincided with Farley Mowat’s publication of Never Cry Wolf (1963).

  8. Brian Ertz says:

    Michael J. Robinson essay here is wonderful, thanks Michael !

  9. B. V. says:

    When will man become tolerant of his surroundings, especially the animals that have a right just as he does to live on this earth.


December 2008


‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey