Washington, DC — The federal government’s plan to remove the gray wolf from the protections of the Endangered Species Act, as detailed by a draft Federal Register notice posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), is temporarily on hold. The reasons for the indefinite delay announced this week were not revealed and neither were the records of meetings beginning in 2010 to hammer out this plan. Today PEER filed a federal lawsuit to obtain the records from those meetings.
The draft Federal Register notice would strike the gray wolf from the federal list of threatened or endangered species but would keep endangered status for the Mexican wolf. Yet, no protected habitat would be delineated for the Mexican wolf, of which far fewer than 100 remain in the wild. This long-planned step is the culmination of what officials call their National Wolf Strategy, developed in a series of closed-door federal-state meetings called “Structured Decision Making” or SDM, beginning in August 2010.
On April 30, 2012, PEER submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for all SDM meeting notes, handouts and decision documents. More than a year later, the agency has not produced a single responsive record, despite a statutory requirement that the records be produced within 20 working days. Today, PEER filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to obtain all of the SDM documents.
“By law, Endangered Species Act decisions are supposed to be governed by the best available science, not the best available deal,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, pointing to a letter from the nation’s leading wolf researchers challenging the scientific basis for the de-listing plan. “The politics surrounding this predator’s legal status have been as fearsome as the reputation of the gray wolf itself.”
The SDM meetings included most states involved with gray wolf conservation. PEER charges that the resulting National Wolf Strategy used political and economic factors to predetermine the answer to scientific questions, such as the biological recovery requirements for wolves and ruling out areas in states within the species’ historical range which lack sufficient suitable habitat.
Other documents earlier uncovered by PEER show eligible habitat for Mexican wolves was severely limited by a related series of political federal-state deals. For example, federal “talking points” for bargaining sessions trading off theoretical protections for Mexican wolves at the expense of gray wolves:
“By acknowledging that the range of the Mexican wolf includes these five states [AZ, NM, CO, UT and TX] through a subspecies listing, the Service would be able to justify delisting the gray wolf in these states” (emphasis in original)
“This closed-door process lacked not only transparency but also integrity. It involved no independent scientists, let alone peer reviewed findings,” Ruch added. “It is not surprising that the Fish & Wildlife Service does not want to see this laundry airing in the public domain.”
These foundational SDM documents sought by PEER may influence the final decision by the new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell as well as affecting the outcome of lawsuits that almost certainly follow the imminent federal gray wolf de-listing announcement.