The problem with the endangered species list

The gray wolf has always been a point of controversy in Western culture. Children’s stories are filled with menacing “big, bad wolves” threatening to eat innocent children or destroy the houses of some hard-working little pigs. The hatred for this predator spans centuries, so it’s no surprise that when European settlers came to the United States, eradicating the wolf was high on their to-do list.

Wolves were largely seen as pests. Teddy Roosevelt referred to them as “beasts of waste and desolation.” By the end of the 19th century, early livestock lobbyists called for wolves to be cleared from the land to make room for cattle ranches — and a government agency listened. The Bureau of Biological Survey worked to poison, shoot, and trap the animal out of existence, and the once-thriving gray wolf population in America was decimated.

By the 1960s, our understanding of ecology had drastically changed. Increased knowledge and appreciation of the natural world led to the eventual signing of the Endangered Species Act in 1973; wolves were added to the list in the lower 48 the next year. And after that, their numbers began to grow — the tiny population that had been left in northern Minnesota eventually spread to northern Michigan.

In the early 90s, researchers began toying with the idea of reintroducing the species to areas they had previously been removed from. And in 1995, wolves were shipped from Canada and released into the northern Rockies and Yellowstone National Park. The release of these animals was a huge success — wolf populations in these areas skyrocketed, and researchers in Yellowstone today are still learning about the grand effects wolves have on the ecosystem.

In March 2019, the Fish and Wildlife Service filed a proposition to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list, which would shift management of the species back to the states. But conservationists argue that it’s way too soon. At best, removing federal protections for the gray wolf could stunt the recovery of the animal, preventing them from branching out to territories they used to roam. At worst, it could reverse recovery in these areas altogether.

To learn more about how the gray wolf has become such a source of controversy, check out the video above. You can find it and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. And if you’re interested in supporting our video journalism, you can become a member of the Vox Video Lab on YouTube.