The Biden administration announced last month that it would not restore wolves to the endangered species list, despite the demands of Indigenous communities.
Wolves are sacred creatures to the American Indian and have a prominent status in just about every Native American tribe. In most Native cultures, the wolf is associated with characteristics such as courage, strength and loyalty. For many North American tribes, wolves, like bears, are considered closely related to humans. For some Northwestern tribes, wolves are an important piece of their origin stories.The wolf delisting, which could lead to the slaughter of the species, has imposed on our religious beliefs. President Joe Biden’s decision demonstrates that he will not respect the sovereignty and culture of tribal nations as promised.
For centuries, the history of relations between the federal government and Native American tribes has too often been a one-way pattern of oppression and expulsion. Between 1777 and 1868, the federal government signed some 368 treaties that pledged protection of Indigenous sovereignty, respect for our ways of life and consultation with tribal nations in decisions impacting our communities. This was not a gratuitous pledge, but one made in exchange for millions of acres relinquished by tribes across the country.
Though legally binding, the federal government routinely violated treaty and trust agreements by enforcing policies that dismantled our ways of life. As a land-based people, the rocks and soil that form our landscapes, and the plants and animals that live upon them, are central to our belief systems and make up the fabric that ties our communities together. Rather than respecting our way of life and honoring signed treaties, the government, without any tribal input, has authorized oil drilling and mining, encouraged forest loggings, and decimated wildlife populations — ignoring the significance of land and animals to tribal communities.
President Donald Trump continued this pattern of assault on Indigenous sovereignty and identity when he removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list in 2020 without tribal consultation. This opened the doors for states to allow unrestricted wolf hunts — no surprise given his sons’ penchant for trophy hunting. Biden’s failure to address this wrong has now further repudiated the nation’s commitment to Indian Country. In less than a year, without the protections of the Endangered Species Act, states have passed laws putting wolves at risk of extinction. A new law in Idaho allows for the slaughter of 90 percent of the state’s wolves this hunting season. In Montana, it’s 85 percent, and, in Wisconsin, the wolf hunt exceeded the state-imposed limits by nearly 100, with hunters killing 218 wolves in three days. Today, the wolf is functionally extinct in over 80 percent of its historic range, with only 6,000 surviving in the U.S.
Had either the Trump or Biden administrations consulted tribal nations — as treaty and trust responsibilities require — they would have learned that as a sacred creature the wolf is an integral part of our land-based identity. The land, and all it contains, is our temple, and the current assault on wolves should be viewed no differently than an attack on a temple or cathedral. Legislation and regulatory actions permitting the decimation of the wolf population is akin to actions calling for the defacing and destruction of pews and stained-glass windows in a church. They tear at the very fabric that keeps us together, by in part dismantling the culture and traditions tied to these creatures and the land itself.
When Biden took office, his actions positioned his administration to reaffirm the government’s treaty and trust responsibility to Indian Country. On Jan. 26, less than a week into his presidency, he issued an executive action requiring each executive agency to consult with tribal nations when making policies impacting those tribes. To this end, Biden also appointed the first Native American Cabinet secretary, Deb Haaland, who, as head of the Interior Department, determines wildlife policies and land management.
But Biden’s decision to not consult with tribal nations on the listing process for wolves not only perpetuates a wrong inflicted on Native Americans by the Trump administration but is in total contradiction to his executive action. It demonstrated that his administration will not take concrete action to honor this country’s treaty and trust responsibilities.
I urge the president to reconsider his decision. He must choose to respect the federal government’s responsibilities toward Indian Country by engaging in meaningful tribal consultation on the listing status of the gray wolf as an endangered species.
Kevin Allis, a member of the Forest County Potawatomi Community, is the president of Thunderbird Strategic LLC and the former CEO of the National Congress of American Indians.