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The messy politics and controversial science around the gray wolf

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  September 13, 2013 08:37 AM

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The Endangered Species List has a sacred status in American life, and you might think that simple arithmetic is enough to decide which animals require a place on it. As the ongoing controversy around the status of the gray wolf shows, however, defining an endangered species is anything but straightforward.

The Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973, providing federal protection for animal species that were “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion” of their historical range. An editorial in Nature on September 11 explains that based on that definition, in 1978 the gray wolf was declared endangered in the lower 48 states. Over the next three decades its numbers rebounded, and today there are about 4,000 gray wolves in the Great Lakes region and 1,700 in the northern Rockies. As a result, in June the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) recommended that gray wolves be removed from the Endangered Species List. It sounds like a perfect success story.

Many scientists and academics, however, think the FWS decision is opportunistic and flawed.

Back in July, Roberta Millstein, who studies the history and philosophy of biology at the University of California, Davis, wrote on the academic blog New APPS, that the decision to remove gray wolves from the list was "arbitrary, capricious, and inconsistent." The main point of contention for Millstein and others is how the species of gray wolf is defined. In order to support its new recommendation about gray wolves, the FWS narrowed its definition of what counts as a gray wolf: Previously the Eastern wolf was considered a subspecies of gray wolf but the FWS reclassified the Eastern wolf as a species in its own right. The distinction is important because if gray wolves do not include Eastern wolves, then the calculation about whether gray wolves have recovered a "significant portion" of their historical range no longer needs to take into account the eastern United States. And that makes it easier to justify removing their endangered status everywhere.

So how do you define a species? It's a hotly contested question. When the FWS pared Eastern wolves from gray wolves, it cited a 2012 paper which argued that species should be identified based on a range of factors, including "genetic markers, morphometric analysis, behavior, and ecology." Millstein and others claim that the 2012 study was written by the FWS for the express purpose of justifying the preordained reclassification of the gray wolf. In her July blog post, she notes that the study was published in the long-dormant journal North American Fauna, which is issued by the FWS, and which, prior to the 2012 study, last published an article in 1991. Millstein looks more favorably on the definition of a species set forth in the Endangered Species Act itself, which defined a species as "multiple loosely bounded, regionally distributed collections of organisms all of the same species or subspecies."

The Fish and Wildlife Service is a surprising target for the type of double-dealing charges we associate more frequently with Wall Street or the National Security Agency. To explain why the FWS might act with anything but the best interests of the gray wolf in mind, Millstein cites the environmental publication Earth Island Journal, which has accused the FWS of conducting a "long retreat in the face of wolf hater intimidation" by a "loose coalition of hunters' groups, outfitters, and ranchers." For its, part, the FWS says it is simply being pragmatic: By delisting the relatively healthy populations of gray wolves, it hopes to concentrate its resources on protecting the Mexican wolf, a more imperiled subspecies of gray wolf.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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