Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Export Restriction on Gray Wolf Pelts Lifted by Obama Administration

Gray wolves south of Alaska will soon have another reason to fear hunters. Their pelts will be available for export in compliance with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  Regulations of the Fish & Wildlife Service (50 CFR 23.69) currently allow such international trade in “skin products” only of Alaskan populations of the gray wolf.  On June 26, the user-friendly format of the relevant rule will be changed to read as follows:

“50 CFR 23.69 How can I trade internationally in fur skins and fur skin products of bobcat, river otter, Canada lynx, gray wolf, and brown bear harvested in the United States?
(a) U.S. and foreign general provisions. For purposes of this section, CITES furbearers means bobcat (Lynx rufus), river otter (Lontra canadensis), Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis), gray wolf (Canis lupus), and brown bear (Ursus arctos) harvested in the United States.”

Yukon Gray Wolf Pelt (courtesy Mickey Bohnacker)
Thus, the Obama administration is intent on keeping its abysmal record with regard to gray wolves alive and strong.  When proposing the change in 2012, Fish & Wildlife acknowledged that certain populations of gray wolves were still protected:

“We initially considered that only the Alaskan populations of gray wolf and brown bear should be included in our definition of “CITES furbearers” because the Alaskan populations are not ESA-listed. However, the same is true for the Canada lynx, which is included in our definition throughout its U.S. range. Upon further review, we believe it is more appropriate to base the definition of ‘‘CITES furbearers’’ on the CITES listings of these species. The definition in § 23.69 includes those native furbearers for which States may request approval of a CITES export program. Although the State of Alaska is the only State that currently has CITES export approval for gray wolf or brown bear, we do not want to prohibit other States from seeking export approval for these species in the future if the legal and conservation status of their populations change.” (77 Fed. Reg. 14207, March 8, 2012  

Even before finalizing the proposed rules, the website of Fish & Wildlife noted that even though it was “unable to give any state outside of Alaska a programmatic approval for wolves, … the export of wolf skins is still possible.  The exporter would have to apply to the Service for a CITES export permit and we would have to make the required legal acquisition and non-detriment findings on a shipment-by-shipment basis.”  No statement is provided as to whether this actually occurred.

The 2012 proposal has now been finalized (79 Fed. Reg. 30400, May 27, 2014), so Fish & Wildlife clearly expects to start giving “programmatic approval” to states wanting to export wolf skins.  Each skin will have to have a tag (unless the animal is called a hybrid), so that there should be an accurate count of how many wolf skins are exported.  There will be no shortage of takers among the states that have been clamoring to offer hunters the opportunity to reduce their wolf populations.  In 2012, Scientific American reported that 23,000 people from across the U.S. applied for Minnesota wolf hunting permits, which could cost up to $250.  At the $100 fee for an export license the Obama administration is charging, there will be a long line of hunters and companies looking to profit from the deaths of wolves.    

Fish & Wildlife currently estimates there are 3,686 gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes (Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin), and 1,674 in the Northern Rocky Mountains (Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming).  There are 75 Mexican gray wolves in forests that straddle New Mexico and Arizona, but these will not be opened to hunting as Fish & Wildlife doubts whether this population will survive at all.  Thus, just over 5,000 wolves is enough, in the opinion of the agency, to remove gray wolves from the endangered list, and now it is enough to give hunters an economic incentive to kill them beyond the protection of livestock.   

Delisting gray wolves has been pursued by Fish & Wildlife throughout Obama’s tenure and, absent further judicial intervention, the agency may soon complete this mission, so it may be doubted whether any population of gray wolves in North America will be safe from hunters wanting to sell their valuable pelts overseas.   It has to be questioned whether Fish & Wildlife would even recognize or acknowledge a serious depletion in gray wolf populations in the future. 

There was once a great president who championed the wildlife of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican no less, but I fear we shall never see his like again from either party.   

Thanks to Yva Momatiuk, John Eastcott, Eric Krieger, and L.E. Papet for thoughts.  

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