Judge restores Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves
The U.S. government must restore Endangered Species Act protections for thousands of gray wolves in most of the lower 48 states because it failed to fully consider threats to the carnivorous mammal’s population, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
“Today’s ruling is a significant victory for gray wolves and for all those who value nature and the public’s role in protecting these amazing creatures,” Defenders of Wildlife CEO and president Jamie Rappaport Clark said in a statement.
In three federal lawsuits filed last year, Defenders of Wildlife and other conservation groups challenged the Trump administration’s October 2020 decision to end protections for gray wolves.
At the time, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials said it marked the successful recovery of a previously threatened species. Critics say the agency based its decision on flawed legal analyses and junk science.
Despite fierce opposition by conservation groups, President Joe Biden’s administration defended the delisting of gray wolves, a move that had reportedly been in the works for years before being finalized under President Donald Trump.
In a 26-page ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White, a George W. Bush appointee, found the government improperly relied on gray wolf recoveries in the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains to decide wolves across the contiguous U.S. no longer qualify for federal protection.
“The Service did not adequately consider threats to wolves outside of these core populations,” White wrote. “Instead, the Service avoids analyzing these wolves by concluding, with little explanation or analysis, that wolves outside of the core populations are not necessary to the recovery of the species.”
White also rejected the government’s argument that evaluating threats to gray wolves wasn’t necessary because it had the authority to delist based on its interpretation of the word “species.”
Fish and Wildlife stated that because portions of the larger gray wolf population — including those in the Northern Rocky Mountains, Wyoming and a Mexican wolf subspecies in the Southwest — were previously delisted from protected status, the larger population was no longer valid.
According to the agency, delisting determinations involve two phases: identifying if a valid “species” can be protected and determining if that species warrants protection. In this case, Fish and Wildlife found the gray wolf population previously protected since 1973 was no longer a legally valid protectable species.
White found the agency could not end protections for gray wolves on that basis.
He compared it to a prior failed attempt to delist gray wolves rejected by a federal appeals court in 2017. In that case, Humane Society v. Zinke, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that wildlife officials could not “circumvent” the law's delisting standards by finding that a smaller group of gray wolves within a larger population was no longer eligible for protection.
“The practical outcome of the Service’s attempt to delist the gray wolf based solely on the statutory definition of ‘species’ is the same: the Service would effectively remove federal protections for the listed gray wolf entities without addressing the ESA’s requirements for making such a determination,” White wrote.
More than 6,000 gray wolves roam prairies and mountainous regions in the United States today, a population that wildlife officials in 2020 said “exceeded all conservation goals for recovery.” Wildlife advocates say gray wolves still face serious threats to their survival, especially as states like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan authorize new trophy hunting seasons.
During a Wisconsin wolf-hunting season in February last year, at least 218 gray wolves were killed in a 48-hour span, about 100 more than the legal limit. The number of wolves in Wisconsin declined about 30% in April 2021 from one year earlier, according to a peer-reviewed study cited in court briefs.
This is not the first time a federal judge has overturned Fish and Wildlife’s decision to delist a group of gray wolves from the endangered species list. Courts have also reversed decisions to end protections for certain gray wolf population segments in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011.
Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, argued that it’s time for U.S. wildlife officials to get serious about gray wolf recovery and stop using legally dubious techniques to sidestep the law.
“After having yet another wolf delisting overturned in federal court, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service should finally learn its lesson,” Block said in a statement. “Instead of continuing to devise convoluted excuses to strip these beloved animals of legal protections, the agency must develop a plan for meaningful recovery across the species’ range and ensure that states will not decimate their wolf populations.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Vanessa Kauffman said the agency is reviewing the decision and declined further comment.
Groups that sued to restore gray wolf protections include Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, Oregon Wild, Humane Society of the United States, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Cascadia Wildlands, Environmental Protection Information Center, Klamath Forest Alliance, Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, The Lands Council, Wildlands Network, Kettle Range Conservation Group, Natural Resources Defense Council and other groups that intervened in the lawsuits to support the plaintiffs’ position.
Defendants who intervened in the cases to oppose gray wolf protections include the National Rifle Association, Safari Club International, Michigan Bear Hunters Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Sportsmen's Alliance Foundation, Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association and the state of Utah.