A congressional hearing to depoliticize the Endangered Species Act kicked off in the most politicized way possible this week, with Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., waving around photos of dead babies before launching into an argument for expansive wolf killing.
“Since we’re talking about the Endangered Species Act, I’m just wondering if my colleagues on the other side would put babies on the endangered species list,” Boebert said, as she flipped through a series of graphic images. “These babies were born in Washington, D.C., full-term. I don’t know, maybe that’s a way we can save some children here in the United States.”
Boebert did not elaborate on the connection she saw between a law passed to protect imperiled wildlife and the viability of the human species, the most widespread mammal on the planet. Nevertheless, the tone for the day was set.
Boebert was on hand Thursday to discuss her “Trust the Science Act,” a proposal for the nationwide removal of federal protections for wolves, before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Wildlife, and Fisheries. The subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., also heard from fellow GOP Reps. Matt Rosendale of Montana, and Harriet Hageman of Wyoming, who have both introduced legislation to remove grizzly bears from the endangered species list in their states.
“This is the first hearing that we will hold on the ESA but certainly not the last,” Bentz said of the landmark environmental law.
The Republican bills would capitalize on a precedent their Democratic counterparts set more than a decade ago: legislatively removing animals from the endangered species list, then barring those removals from judicial review, rather than following the scientific process required by the Endangered Species Act. The proposals are part of wider movement of Republican lawmakers — backed by supporters in the firearms and trophy hunting industry — to liberalize hunting of the West’s most iconic predators.
“While each of these bills is unique, they share the common thread of circumventing the scientific processes currently underway.”
Steve Guertin, a deputy director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act, testified that the proposals “would supersede ongoing scientific analysis being conducted by the service regarding the status of wolf and grizzly bear populations right now.” The agency opposed the measures, Guertin told the lawmakers. “While each of these bills is unique,” he said, “they share the common thread of circumventing the scientific processes currently underway.”
California Rep. Jared Huffman, one of the few Democrats who participated in the hearing, described the day’s agenda as “a hot mess of extreme anti-science, anti-tribe, anti-wildlife bills.”
“The sheer hubris of these bills is impressive,” Huffman said. “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 for the Endangered Species Act, and then to lock those in by insulating them from judicial review — that is incredibly extreme.”
While many environmentalists would agree, the move was not without precedent. In 2011, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the lone Democrat in the state’s congressional delegation, attached a rider to a must-pass budget bill that reversed a federal judge’s decision returning wolves to the Endangered Species List and prohibited judicial review. The judge blasted the move as blatantly unconstitutional. Wolf hunting and trapping in the Northern Rockies has been legal ever since.
In the past two years, Republicans in Montana and Idaho passed a series of laws to slash their wolf populations — in Idaho by as much as 90 percent — through the use of bait and snares, aerial hunting, night hunting with thermal goggles, and more. In Montana, Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte abolished wolf hunting quotas altogether on Yellowstone National Park’s northern border in 2021, leading to the deadliest season the park has ever recorded, with nearly a fifth of its wolves eliminated. As Huffman noted, “Some of these states want to ‘manage’ wolves and grizzlies like Buffalo Bill managed bison.”
Boebert’s proposal would turn wolf management over to the states in the rest of the country, while Rosendale’s and Hageman’s bills would add grizzly bears to the mix as well.
Entering its 50th year of existence, the Endangered Species Act has saved 99 percent of the species afforded its protections and remains one of the most popular laws in the country.
Despite the high popularity, anti-government Republicans have long cast the law as one of the worst things to ever happen to the West. “For far too long, the Endangered Species Act has been weaponized by extremists, extremist environmentalists, to restrict common sense multiple use activities that they disagree with,” Boebert testified.
In 2020, voters in Boebert’s home state passed a historic measure mandating the reintroduction of wolves, which had disappeared from Colorado thanks to a government eradication campaign in the 1940s. The vote was extraordinarily close, with 50.9 percent of voters supporting reintroduction and 49.1 voting against. Supporters were largely based in urban centers on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains, while the opposition was concentrated where the wolf reintroduction will happen, in Boebert’s district on the western slope.
Despite its name, Boebert’s promotion of the “Trust the Science Act” puts the politics of predator management front and center. “Its [sic] far past time that we removed leftist politics from listing decisions,” she said in unveiling the proposal last year. The bill received enthusiastic support from Safari Club International, a lobbying giant of the trophy hunting community, and the National Rifle Association.
Hageman and Rosendale sounded a similar tone in calling for delisting grizzly bears. “There’s a small handful of members on this committee that actually have grizzly bears in their districts,” Rosendale told his colleagues. “Yet, these bureaucrats and some members of this committee insist on telling Montanans how they should go about their everyday lives by keeping the species listed without ever feeling the impact of this decision.”
In advancing their proposals, the authors of the anti-predator bills often misrepresented basic facts related to wildlife biology and management.
Boebert read a statistic that “from 2002 to present day, approximately 500 people have been attacked by wolves with nearly 30 of these attacks resulting in human deaths.” Though she did not cite a source, Boebert seemed to be drawing from a recent Norwegian Institute for Nature Research report. She neglected to mention that only two of the cases were reported in the U.S. and only one was fatal.
As the report itself noted: “Considering that there are close to 60,000 wolves in North America and 15,000 in Europe, all sharing space with hundreds of millions of people, it is apparent that the risks associated with a wolf attack are above zero, but far too low to calculate.”
Hageman, for her part, repeatedly used the term “Canadian gray wolf” when discussing wolves residing in the Northern Rockies and described them as “non-native.”
The so-called non-native Canadian gray wolf is a feature of a conspiracy theory in which the wolves that were reintroduced to the U.S. in the 1990s were part of a super-large strain of extra ferocious predators deployed by the federal government to destroy the Western way of life. It is not true. The wolves that were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho in 1995 were members of the same species — canis lupus — that the federal government exterminated over the preceding century.
Rosendale, meanwhile, focused on the “150 confirmed or probable” claims of grizzly bears eating livestock in Montana and the “hundreds of thousands of dollars lost.” Rosendale left out some key context. According to the Montana Department of Livestock, grizzly bears were responsible for killing 143 of Montana’s more than 2.7 million sheep and cattle in 2022, contributing to a loss of .0052 percent of the state’s livestock. The state paid ranchers $234,378.37 to compensate for those losses.
Rosendale also said Montana’s pivot to heavy-handed wolf hunting was “because the gray wolf population is about 10 times the target population” and “it continues to grow.” The “target population,” as Rosendale framed it, does not exist. In the early 2000s, Montana needed at least 150 wolves to obtain and retain state management authorities under the Endangered Species Act. The number was a minimum, not a target to maintain in perpetuity. As for the continued growth of Montana’s wolf population, biologists broadly agree that those numbers stabilized in recent years, and some of the region’s leading experts have raised concerns that the state may in fact be overestimating its totals.
The Republicans’ most challenging witness was Chris Servheen. For 35 years, Servheen led the U.S. government’s effort recover grizzly bears before retiring in 2016. Until recently, he was the most visible proponent of removing grizzly bears from the endangered species list. As detailed in an Intercept profile in January, the veteran biologist’s views changed with the anti-predator political pivot in the Northern Rockies.
As Servheen reiterated throughout his testimony, the Endangered Species Act is about more than numbers. States must have regulations in place that will ensure continued recovery before assuming management authority over a listed species.
“The adequacy of regulatory mechanisms is just as important as the numbers of animals,” Servheen said, and in the Northern Rockies “the lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms is due to political interference.” He added: “It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that if grizzly bears were delisted by congressional action and turned over to state management, the legislatures and the governors would do the same thing to grizzly bears that they are currently doing to wolves.”