Gray wolves not out of the woodsyet

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In April 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) removed the northern Rocky Mountain population of gray wolves (Canis lupus) from all protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Following the ESA's mandate to base listing determinations “solely on the…best scientific and commercial data available,” FWS conducted an extensive analysis of regional threats to wolves. They concluded that while “[p]ublic hostility toward wolves led to excessive human-caused mortality that extirpated the species,” subsequent improvement in attitudes toward wolves ensured the long-term viability of the species.

We agree that human behaviors (and the attitudes and values underlying them) ultimately caused the extirpation of wolves in the northern Rockies, but we find little support for FWS's conclusion that attitudes toward wolves have improved, or are improving. Indeed, the larger body of research points to the opposite conclusion (15). Although FWS provided more than 200 citations in their analysis, they cited just one empirical study that examined attitudes toward wolves (4). [This cannot be explained by a lack of published literature; a recent review identified 50 publications that specifically addressed the topic (6).] Thus, it appears FWS was either unaware of the extensive body of research on attitudes toward wolves, or chose to ignore this research. In fact, the only empirical article cited by FWS—a meta-analysis—comes to a very different conclusion: “Across the 37 attitude surveys we studied, the reported statistics were stable over the last 30 years…[t]his contradicts a recent perception among some ecologists that wolf support has recently grown” (4).

The FWS's analysis of the threat posed by negative attitudes toward wolves is wholly inadequate. When threats to a species' continued survival are primarily social in nature, FWS must use the same standard that goes into analyzing biological and ecological threats. It is time for FWS to expand its view of what constitutes “science” and fully incorporate the social sciences into listing determinations.

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