When Politics Overrules the Science
A few days ago on Capitol Hill, I attended a truly bizarre committee hearing. The Water, Wildlife and Fisheries Subcommittee heard testimony on bills to remove gray wolves and grizzly bears from the endangered species list. Both species are fully recovered and no longer in danger of extinction, but the hearing wasn’t really about that. It was about who gets to say so.
The bill sponsors are Reps. Harriet Hageman (Wyoming), Matt Rosendale (Montana), Tom Tiffany (Wisconsin), and Lauren Boebert (Colorado). The hearing turned bizarre when the ranking Democrat, Jared Huffman (California) decided to open his remarks by lambasting Rep. Boebert. Calling the bills “a hot mess of extreme anti-science,” and “sheer hubris,” he then turned personal. Comparing Colorado voters’ approval of wolf reintroduction to Boebert’s thin re-election margin in 2022, he asserted that “apparently wolves are more popular than Members who want to delist them.” Ad-hominem sarcasm aside, his statement ignores two essential facts. First, wolf reintroduction was overwhelming opposed by voters in Boebert’s district, where it failed it failed in 24 counties (it passed only on the strength of supermajorities in Denver and Boulder). Second, wildlife decisions should be based on ballot initiatives and election politics (as this issue certainly proves).
That’s where Huffman completely derailed, talking about political interference. “The idea that we as members of Congress sitting here in Washington are more qualified than scientists and experts at the top of their field to make delisting decisions…,” he thundered, “is incredibly extreme.” Yet that is precisely what he is doing. The “experts at the top of their field” made this determination years ago, and have faced a bewildering array of political interference ever since.
Biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) delisted gray wolves in 2020, writing, “Recovery of the gray wolf… is one of our nation’s great conservation successes, with the wolf joining species such as the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, American alligator and brown pelican that have been brought back.” They cited “more than 45 years of collaboration and partnerships with states, tribes, conservation organizations, private landowners and other federal partners” and concluded, “the gray wolf has recovered by any and all measures… no longer in danger of extinction or at risk of becoming so in the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of the species’ range.”
That range includes two “large, stable or growing populations totaling more than 6,000 individuals that are broadly distributed across the northern portions of three states in the Great Lakes area and all or portions of five states in the northern Rocky Mountains.” Over 27,000 are thriving across Canada, and about 10,000 in Alaska.
The former federal biologist who wrote the grizzly delisting decision and defended it in court also testified at the hearing. He is now on the environmental industry payroll and suddenly claims that he changed his mind because states have no protections in place if federal protection is removed. Rep. Hageman asked a few simple questions that must have made him feel like a witness in one of her courtroom cases. She pointed out correctly that his statement is an insult to state wildlife agencies that spent years developing plans to protect and manage these species, as he himself wrote with respect to grizzlies. And regarding wolves, the USFWS said in 2020, “This final determination to delist gray wolves is based on sound science, a thorough analysis of threats and how they have been alleviated, and the ongoing commitment and proven track record of states and tribes to manage for healthy wolf populations once delisted.”
Wolves and grizzlies are at the top of their food chain, so when they were federally protected and people stopped killing them for a while, both recovered quickly and have been the subject of lawsuits ever since. Wolves were listed in 1973, and by 2003 USFWS biologists determined they were no longer in danger of extinction. They were downlisted from endangered to threatened, and the environmental industry went berserk. Political activists at Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, and others have spent untold millions trying to keep wolves on the endangered list. And judges, not one of whom was a wildlife expert, have been meddling for decades – setting themselves up as “more qualified than scientists and experts at the top of their field,” as Huffman put it. Delisting decisions in specific regions were overturned by judges at least six times, while wolf populations continued to grow.
By 2020 there were so many gray wolves that the agency again removed them from the endangered list. Environment groups sued again, and a California judge’s ruling was entirely predictable. That’s why Congress may finally say “enough is enough” to judges meddling in what should be biological decisions.
It is not Congress that is placing individual Members’ political opinions above the experts. It is federal judges. Congress ought to insist that the biological decisions be implemented, and activist judges stay out of it. How else can the public ever be expected to “trust the science” on wildlife issues?
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