Interior Secretary Sally Jewell received a letter on Wednesday signed by 74 congressional representatives, urging her to drop the plan by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to end federal protections for the gray wolf. Led by US Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the house members said in the letter that the proposed delisting could undermine decades of conservation work and halt wolf recovery in the Lower 48 states.

“The Service should rescind the proposed rule immediately, and continue to review the taxonomic history of wolves in the eastern United States, and other factors related to the status of endangered gray wolf populations and their associated ecosystems before removing federal protection,” the letter concluded.

Last year, a similar letter was sent to USFWS director Dan Ashe by 72 members of Congress in support of the delisting.

The proposed delisting has been controversial since the USFWS first announced the plan last year. The proposal will place the reins of wolf management back into the hands of individual states and end federal protections for the species. While many state wildlife agencies support the plan, animal rights groups argue that the proposal could jeopardize the gray wolf’s recovery. In 1960, when the species was first put under federal protections as a precursor to the Endangered Species Act, the gray wolf had already disappeared from most of its native range. There are now an estimated 6,100 wolves in the Lower 48 states and an additional 7,000 in Alaska. USFWS biologists say that this number marks a significant recovery—so much so that the gray wolf may no longer need protection.

Control of the gray wolf in certain areas has already been turned over to a few states, including Michigan, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Wisconsin. With some of the highest wolf populations outside of Alaska, these states exceeded their recovery efforts in some cases by more than 300 percent.

Reintroducing a large predator does not come without problems of its own. Wolves can pose a threat to livestock, domestic animals, and struggling wildlife. In Idaho, wildlife officials say that wolves are responsible for downward trend in the state’s elk population. Elsewhere, wolves are a problem for ranchers and rural residents. Based on its own studies, the USFWS determined that the gray wolf had significantly recovered to merit delisting on a federal level.

However, the letter by the House representatives points to a peer-review of the USFWS study which cast doubt on some of the conclusions reached by the agency. The Service previously determined in a review that the current listing for the gray wolf erroneously included areas that were not part of its native range. This included the eastern United States, which was home to the eastern wolf. The peer-review panel found there was no evidence precluding gray wolves from a historic range in the region, and also took issue with recognizing the eastern wolf as a separate species.

“What is the point of decades of work and millions of taxpayer dollars to save a species, only to allow it to be hunted into near-extinction once again?” DeFazio wrote in an op-ed to The Oregonian.

The independent peer-review, managed by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, prompted the USFWS to reopen its public comment period and extend it until March 27.

Image courtesy USFWS

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