Defenders has been on the frontlines fighting for the nation’s most imperiled and misunderstood wildlife for 75 years

Back in the 1960s, when a young man asked U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas what he could do to help save nature, the ardent advocate for the environment answered, “Holler, and keep on hollering!”

Defenders of Wildlife News, the precursor to Defenders magazine, shared this anecdote in the Jan-Feb-Mar 1966 edition, adding that “Only when enough people care to join forces and ‘holler and keep on hollering’ will wildlife get its due consideration.”

Defenders of Wildlife began sounding the alarm as Defenders of Furbearers in 1947—with only a single full-time staff person and about 1,500 members—focused on the peril to coyotes and other furred animals from steel-jawed leghold traps and lethal poisons. Over the years, we’ve been part of many important fights to protect species and their habitat. Some of our most outstanding successes include ensuring the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, winning the enactment of the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992 and restoring gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

Magazine Spring 2022 - Main feature, image of howling wolf
Mira/Alamy Stock Photo

We’ve pioneered coexistence tools to help keep wolves, grizzly bears, Florida panthers and bison safe as ranching and development intrude on their habitat. We are helping to shape regional, national and international decisions on issues like renewable energy, landscape conservation, climate solutions and wildlife law and policy, we fight for “smart-from-the-start” renewable energy development that minimizes impact to wildlife like federally threatened desert tortoises and greater sage-grouse, and we formed lasting ties with state, local, federal and tribal agencies to develop scientifically sound strategies to guide species’ recovery.

Our work to save imperiled species and protect federal lands and waters from misuse and exploitation stretches from our field work in remote wilderness areas and with tribes and private landowners to state and federal courts, academia and the halls of Congress, where we educate members and their staff on the importance of protecting the laws that keep species from going extinct. In the last year alone, we successfully defended the Migratory Bird Protection Act, which holds industry accountable for its impact on birds, restored protections to the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and stopped oil and gas leasing permits for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Our name, our logo, our staff, our offices and the look of our magazine have changed over the decades, but our mission remains the same at its core: We will never stop working to make sure our nation’s most imperiled species survive and thrive for the next 75 years and beyond.

Bringing wolves back

As the first national conservation group to promote wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park, Defenders led the movement to garner support by conducting public education campaigns, fighting for federal funding, suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to compel wolf reintroduction and establishing a 100,000 Wolf Compensation Fund, an historic initiative that reimbursed Montana ranchers for livestock losses to wolves. This compensation program significantly reduced rancher opposition to wolves and proved pivotal in the final months of the reintroduction process when opponents were pulling out all the stops. In 1995, Defenders actively participated in the reintroduction of wolves, the first time they had been in back in the Northern Rockies in 70 years. 

Wolves have since expanded from the Yellowstone region and central Idaho, where they were also reintroduced, to the Pacific Northwest and California. In 2020, biologists confirmed the first-known pack in Colorado with pups since the 1940s. That same year, Defenders led efforts to pass a Colorado ballot initiative to support reintroduction wolves in the state. The victory directed state wildlife officials to restore wolves back to public lands by 2023 and marks the first time U.S. voters have ever directed a state wildlife agency to reintroduce a species.

But the fight to protect wolves and help them reclaim their former homes in areas where habitat still exists is far from over. More than 4,000 wolves have been killed since 2011, when Congress removed ESA protections from wolves in Idaho and Montana—the first-ever delisting driven by politicians rather than biologists—and turned wolf management over to the states.

The following year, Wyoming pressured the federal government to remove protections in their state as well. And in 2020, the Trump administration removed protections for all wolves except the critically endangered Mexican gray in the Southwest and Red Wolves in the Southeast, effectively short-circuiting recovery throughout most of the remaining suitable habitat in the lower 48 states. Defenders immediately filed a lawsuit, arguing that the move was premature and scientifically unfounded. In February, Defenders won its lawsuit when a U.S. District Court judge restored protections for all but the Northern Rockies population—a big win for wolves and the ESA.

But in the Northern Rockies wolves are still in grave danger. Montana, Idaho and Wyoming have authorized uncontrolled elimination of wolves using baiting, electronic calling, vehicles, snaring and bounties.

At press time, 24 gray wolves from Yellowstone National Park have been killed by hunters waiting for them to stray outside park boundaries, in one case eliminating an entire pack. In response, Defenders is calling on the federal government to restore protections in the remaining states before decades of hard-earned progress is lost.

Changing hearts and minds

For Defenders, coexistence is a conservation philosophy that is changing hearts and minds so that communities across the country become more tolerant, accepting and appreciative of wildlife, especially as more people want to live in the only places wildlife has left.

In 2002 Defenders began paying a “range rider” in the Mexican gray wolf recovery area in Arizona and New Mexico to help deter cattle depredation. Today we support 23 coexistence projects throughout the region that involve 12 range riders and 12 additional wildlife technicians trained in proven nonlethal deterrent techniques, such as noise deterrents.

Our Electric Fence Incentive Program—in its 12th year in Montana—provides landowners with technical and financial assistance to keep bears from attractants like chicken coops. We provide funds for bear-resistant trash cans for communities and food lockers for campgrounds.

And across the Great Plains, Defenders has been working for decades to create grass buffers to deter prairie dogs—a species essential for the critically endangered black-footed ferret—from expanding their colonies to places they are not wanted.

We also helped win federal funding for a black-footed ferret captive-breeding program that eventually led to the ferret’s reintroduction in Wyoming in 1991. Today some 400 individuals live in 18 locations across the Great Plains and Intermountain West.

To protect bison that migrate out of Yellowstone National Park, Defenders has helped more than 50 local landowners build fences to keep bison from damaging property and has helped move more than 350 Yellowstone bison to tribal lands in Montana. 

In Alaska, Defenders funds polar bear-resistant community food storage lockers. And in Florida, we provide funds and expertise to build night enclosures for small livestock so that residents are more willing to share habitat with endangered Florida panthers.

Defenders remains practical and is doing all we can to put nonlethal tools in the hands of livestock producers to reduce conflicts with predators. We celebrated a turning point in 2017, when Wildlife Services—the federal agency charged with predator control—hired its first federal nonlethal conflict prevention specialist in Montana—funded, in part, by Defenders. The next year, Defenders lobbied for and won congressional funding for non-
lethal conflict prevention specialists in 10 other states, paving the way for a paradigm shift in wildlife management.

Combining vision with action

To protect imperiled species, our nation enacted the ESA in 1973, the strongest and most visionary wildlife law of any nation on the planet. It has provided for the designation of millions of acres of critical habitat, and without it, scientists have estimated that at least 227 species, including the bald eagle, Red Wolf and California condor, would no longer exist. 

But almost as soon as the ESA was enacted, congressional efforts to weaken it began. Defending it and ensuring the law is funded continues to be one of Defenders’ highest priorities.

Over the decades, we’ve offered recommendations to FWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service that included speeding up species listing decisions, developing science-based recovery plans and stepping up enforcement for species in urgent need, like the desert tortoise, grizzly bear, North Atlantic right whale and Florida manatee. 

Our lawsuits have won greater protections for bull trout, desert tortoises, dolphins, Canada lynx, Sonoran pronghorn, grizzly bears, wolves and bird species, including northern spotted and cactus ferruginous pygmy owls.

In 2017, we launched our Center for Conservation Innovation (CCI) to pioneer the use of satellite data and cloud computing to detect habitat loss before it becomes irreversible and affects endangered species. 

Today, CCI is widely known and respected by the federal government, academia and throughout the conservation sector for its team of scientists, technologists and policy experts who find practical solutions for the many conservation challenges facing imperiled species.

We are also at the forefront of an effort to broaden the conservation movement and fulfill our bold vision of a more diverse and engaged constituency. Through our successful TV program Wildlife Nation, a series launched with Jeff Corwin in late 2021, we’re reaching over 1.5 million viewers a week and taking them to meet Defenders’ experts and partners working to save species on the brink and to motivate a new, diverse generation of wildlife advocates.

Fighting against poisons

One of Defenders’ first big successes involved banning Compound 1080—an indiscriminate poison used to control predators. The compound is so toxic that just a teaspoon could kill dozens of animals and seriously harm untargeted wildlife as it made its way up the food chain. 

In 1972, after a decades-long campaign, Defenders helped win a ban on the poison, but as is too often the case in conservation, the fight to hold the line never stops. When the Reagan administration reversed course in 1981, Defenders again led the fight and largely succeeded in upholding the ban.

Defenders also helped save countless wild animals when it partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban d-Con, a highly toxic rat poison once commonly sold at home improvement stores. A slow-acting anticoagulant, d-Con interferes with blood-clotting and causes uncontrollable internal bleeding and eventual death. The toxin was implicated in the deaths of at least 25 wild animal species, including hawks, eagles, bobcats, mountain lions, endangered San Joaquin kit foxes and northern spotted owls, as well as numerous cats and dogs. The EPA tried and failed to impose regulations in 1998, 2008 and 2013, when Defenders stepped in to support the agency’s case, and the manufacturer agreed to phase out production in 2014 and end distribution in 2015—a huge win for wildlife, people and pets.

Defenders continues to work with livestock ranchers in the Great Plains states to resolve conflicts and prevent prairie dog poisoning, and we’ve also relocated hundreds of prairie dogs from conflict areas to nearby protected areas where they are beneficial to black-footed ferrets, mountain plovers, burrowing owls, swift foxes and more.

Refuge for endangered species

Defenders is a passionate protector and advocate for America’s National Wildlife Refuge System, the only network of public lands and waters dedicated specifically to wildlife conservation. Wildlife refuges encompass an incredible diversity of species and habitats and are critically important to more than 513 threatened and endangered plants and animals. Our efforts to protect these lands include improving antiquated regulations on oil and gas drilling on refuge lands, winning regulations for refuges in Alaska that block aerial-gunning, baiting and trapping and killing of bears and wolves with young in their dens.

Defenders has also long thwarted repeated attempts by the fossil fuel industry and pro-oil members of Congress to drill in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The coastal plain in the heart of the Arctic refuge, providing crucial calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd, denning habitat for threatened polar bears and staging areas for throngs of migratory birds.

Some of our proudest wins include stopping the military takeovers of sensitive refuge lands at Desert National Wildlife Refuge, forcing FWS to uphold regulations limiting the commercial harvest of horseshoe crab eggs—crucial to federally threatened red knots and scores of other shorebirds at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge—and stopping a large transmission power line from cutting through the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge.

We have a lot more to do!

Three-quarters of a century ago, most conservationists believed that if we protected species and preserved some habitat that would be enough for wildlife to thrive. Today, we see the bigger picture, as well as the escalating, existential dangers wrought by the climate crisis and biodiversity loss so extreme that as many as one million animal and plant species worldwide now face possible extinction in our lifetime. It’s our hope that our latest initiatives to shore up wildlife protections and expand national wildlife refuges—in some cases they are the only remaining places left for species on the brink of extinction—will help wildlife to adapt to the changes ahead and benefit future generations as well. 

Our challenges are greater and more urgent than they were 75 years ago, but we’ve grown into a premier wildlife conservation organization with the tools and resources to combat them. With our extraordinary team of scientists, policy experts, lawyers, outreach specialists and communicators—buoyed by our nearly 2.2 million members and supporters and efforts to build  a broader, more inclusive and engaged conservation movement—no other environmental organization is better positioned to lead wildlife conservation than Defenders. Hats off to the tenacious, brave and passionate people whose “hollering” paved the way for us to ensure a rich wildlife legacy for everyone to enjoy.

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