Professors Call for Science as Basis for Public Policy

December 8, 2009

Professors Call for Science as Basis for Public Policy

VALDOSTA -- Valdosta State University Biology Professor Dr. Brad Bergstrom recently authored a paper titled "The Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf is not yet recovered," which was published in the December issue of BioScience, the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

The timely article with political undertones focuses on a controversial issue at the interface of science and public policy -- specifically the May 2009 removal of the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolves of Idaho and Montana from Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection. Bergstrom, lead author and conservation committee chair for the American Society of Mammalogists (ASM), said he believes the de-listing was premature, not based on the best science and influenced by pressure from area ranchers, elk hunters and state legislators.

"The Endangered Species Act is quite clear on the requirements for de-listing," said Bergstrom, who has taught biology at VSU since 1986. "If a species is at risk of extinction across a significant portion of its range -- as the gray wolf is -- then it is not, by law, recovered."

The VSU researcher, along with co-authors and fellow committee members Dr. Sacha Vignieri of Harvard University, Dr. Steven Sheffield of Virginia Tech, Dr. Wes Sechrest of the Global Wildlife Conservation, and Anne Carlson of The Wilderness Society, summarize the biological evidence supporting their position.

In the article, they contrast the precarious status of this wolf population with other, more completely recovered species that have been removed from the endangered species list.

The paper cites evidence of a lack of migration and genetic connectivity among subpopulations as primary indicators that the wolves need additional protection. There are essentially three separate wolf populations in the region, which span Montana, Central Idaho and the greater Yellowstone area. If they continue to remain isolated, they will lose genetic variation and suffer the effects of inbreeding, including a reduction in reproductive ability, leading to population decline.

According to the authors, the gray wolf plays an important role as top predator to prevent overpopulation and over browsing by elk, which has devastated ecosystems in many areas of the Rocky Mountains. The wolves' recovery had begun to dramatically reverse the negative effects caused by overpopulation of elk in and around Yellowstone National Park.

This is the first time hunters in the lower 48 states have been allowed to shoot wolves since the species was virtually eradicated in the 1930s. The authors report that hunters in Idaho and Montana have killed nearly 200 wolves since the beginning of hunting season in August 2009. Additionally, Idaho recently extended its season until March, during which they hope to kill at least 100 more. Because additional "problem wolves" may also be shot, authors point out that Idaho may reduce its wolf population by 40 percent in the first year alone. Reduced population will cause even less exchange between groups perpetuating the problem with genetic connectivity.

Bergstrom said the ASM has recently supported various measures for protection and recovery of rare and endangered mammals, and in several instances officially opposed George W. Bush administration rulings that removed federal protections from mammalian species.

"President Obama promised to change the approach to environmental policy decisions, restoring science as the primary basis for decisions," Bergstrom said. "However on March 6, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar chose to green-light a late Bush-administration plan to remove ESA protections from the gray wolves without further independent scientific review -- a ruling that surprised and disappointed environmentalists and biologists."

The BioScience-published paper seeks to summarize the existing science regarding wolf restoration and show the three subpopulations of wolves are not yet large enough to sustain a healthy wolf population across the region. Authors agree the future of these mammals is uncertain. They assert that although the wolves may continue to survive many years in the area, further protection will facilitate further restoration of the western wolf populations and ultimately restore balance within western ecosystems.

"After peer review and publication of this scientific summary, we hope that either the interior secretary will be convinced to reassess the delisting of the wolf, or that our information will assist those conservation groups litigating the decision to win their case in federal court," Bergstrom said. "We are fighting myth, prejudice, and even a visceral hatred of wolves among some parts of society to convince people of the value of this 'keystone predator' to the health of its native ecosystems."