Humpback whales have rebounded so successfully that federal wildlife managers say most should be removed from endangered species protection – with a caveat for whales off Washington state.
That's a bit of good news for this Earth Day. Below we've summarized the debate over the status of a few other threatened or endangered species in Washington state.
But first on those humpbacks: NOAA Fisheries said Monday that they should be divided into 14 distinct populations under the Endangered Species Act, with 10 of those removed from the listing. Two populations would remain listed as endangered, and two would be classified as threatened.
The humpbacks that feed off Washington and Oregon include whales from the “Central America” population (see chart below), a group that would be listed as threatened.
Humpback whales have thrived since they were listed as endangered in 1970 following decades of commercial hunting.
There were about 15,000 humpbacks in the entire North Pacific before 1905, according to a NOAA Fisheries assessment from 2013. Their numbers plummeted to 1,200 by 1966. But by 2004-2006, they had bounced back to 18,000-20,000, according to the assessment.
The gray wolf has been another Endangered Species Act success story, with populations rebounding after hundreds of years of slaughter.
In Washington state, the wolf population grew by 30 percent last year, and the wolf has been removed from endangered status in eastern Washington and other parts of the western U.S.
Not everyone is happy about that. Rancher Len McIrvin of Diamond M Ranch, near the Canadian border in northeast Washington, says he’s seen a wolf kill his livestock.
“Those people in downtown Seattle haven't a clue,” McIrvin told KUOW’s The Record this month. “They should not even be allowed to enter the debate. People who are suffering the loss should be the ones who make the decisions.”
The status of the largest member of the weasel family also is in litigation. Lawsuits were filed last year after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service withdrew a proposal to declare the wolverine a threatened species in the Lower 48.
The agency said climate change was “not likely to place the wolverine in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.”
Environmental groups disagreed.
“This is the moment when wolverines need our help the most and the agency is turning its back and walking away,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Just 300 wolverines are thought to remain in the Lower 48.
Environmentalists found more to cheer in the wildlife service’s statement this month that it would consider listing the northern spotted owl as endangered.
The owl became the poster bird of the battle over logging federal timberlands after it was listed as threatened in 1990. The lawsuits that followed put a chokehold on logging that has lasted for 25 years. But the spotted owl’s population has continued to decline in the Northwest, according to federal and state estimates.
Logging isn’t the only problem, wildlife officials say: Barred owls are expanding their range and driving out the smaller spotted owl.
“In Washington, where barred owl populations have been present the longest, spotted owl populations have declined at the greatest rate,” Paul Henson, supervisor of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Office, said in 2013.
In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed the threatened listing for lynx to include all of the cats in the Lower 48 states.
But environmentalists said the revised listing didn’t do enough to protect essential lynx habitat, and several groups have filed suit, demanding protections be extended to the Kettle Range in Washington state and to parts of Oregon and Idaho, among other areas in the West.