The gray wolf, threatened to near-extinction when it was added to the endangered species list in 1974, has returned to – and is thriving in – some areas of its former habitat.
Under a Trump administration decision announced Thursday, those wolves will lose federal protections in most of the U.S. and management will return to state agencies, sparking renewed concerns for the safety of the species.
The rule, announced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will publish in the Federal Register on Tuesday and will be effective 60 days after publication, on Jan. 4.
“After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in the USFWS release.
“Today’s announcement simply reflects the determination that this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law.
“Today’s action reflects the Trump Administration’s continued commitment to species conservation based on the parameters of the law and the best scientific and commercial data available.”
Statewide, some lauded the decision.
“The gray wolf is an Endangered Species Act success story,” Republican Washington Rep. Dan Newhouse said in a statement. “By empowering states to manage gray wolf populations, the federal government is recognizing the effectiveness of locally-led conservation efforts, basing management decisions on sound science – instead of politics – and providing certainty to families, farmers, and rural communities in Central Washington and throughout the country.”
“WCA applauds today’s Department of the Interior announcement regarding the removal of all gray wolves from the list of ESA-protected species,” said Ashley House, executive vice president of Washington Cattlemen’s Association. “We have tremendous confidence in the science that informed this important decision and thank Secretary Bernhardt for his leadership on this matter.”
But while former USFWS director Dan Ashe agreed wolves have sufficiently recovered for delisting, he questioned the announcement coming so close to the election.
“It creates the perception that it’s being done for political reasons,” Ashe told the Associated Press.
The decision keeps protections for a small population of Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest.
Conservation and environmental groups – including WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Cascadia Wildlands, Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, The Lands Council, Kettle Range Conservation Group, Klamath Forest Alliance, Wildlands Network and Rocky Mountain Wild, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center – are gearing up to bring a legal challenge to the decision.
“This is yet another example of the Trump administration ignoring science,” said Lindsay Larris, wildlife program director with WildEarth Guardians. “From climate change denial, to their gross mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, to rollbacks of environmental safeguards protecting clean air and water, this administration has proven time and time again that they’re only in it for themselves, even if it means ignoring and denying the facts.”
The group intends to challenge the decision in federal court once the rule is published.
Prior attempts to weaken protections for gray wolves have been overturned by federal judges. Though wolves have been delisted in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Eastern Oregon and Eastern Washington, the Obama administration’s efforts to end protection for the species in the Great Lakes region was undone by a court order in 2014.
The Center for Biological Diversity also intends to file suit.
“Again and again, the courts have rejected premature removal of wolf protection,” said Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Center. “But instead of pursuing further wolf recovery, the Fish and Wildlife Service has just adopted the broadest, most destructive delisting rule yet. The courts recognize, even if the feds don’t, that the Endangered Species Act requires real wolf recovery, including in the southern Rockies and other places with ideal wolf habitat.”
In 2019, peer reviews commissioned by the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the agency’s proposal contained substantial errors and misrepresented current science on wolf conservation. The five reviewers unanimously criticized the delisting proposal, and four offered strong opposition.
The delisting seems to run contrary to public opinion: According to the CBD, last summer the service received a record-breaking 1.8 million digital comments opposing removal of protection from wolves, and many federal lawmakers have signed letters opposing wolf delisting.
“We absolutely plan to challenge it,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, chief executive of the conservation advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife and a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service under President Bill Clinton, said in a statement. “We believe they’ve declared victory too soon.
“Stripping protections for gray wolves is premature and reckless. Gray wolves occupy only a fraction of their former range and need continued federal protection to fully recover. We will be taking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court to defend this iconic species.”
Move the latest in an ongoing ‘battle over wolf recovery’
Gray wolves once roamed throughout most of the U.S. The most recent data from the USFWS and its state partners show an estimated 4,400 wolves inhabit the western Great Lakes states, while only 108 wolves inhabit Washington, 158 in Oregon, and just 15 in California.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife killed several wolves over the past two summers from Northeast Washington packs, including the last two remaining in the Wedge Pack in August, due to incidents of alleged depredation of cattle.
Gov. Jay Inslee in September directed the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to draft new rules governing the department’s lethal removal of wolves involved in conflicts with livestock.
That action reversed the commission’s denial of a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity in May that called for reform of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s lethal wolf-management policies.
“Wolves are a keystone species whose presence on landscapes regulates animal populations and improves ecosystem health – something the Service has acknowledged for at least 44 years,” Kelly Nokes, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.
If the courts uphold the Trump administration’s decision, gray wolves will be subject to individual states’ rules on hunting and trapping, as well as private land owners and cattle farmers, who may not be as sensitive to the plight of the recovering species.
Wolves are listed as endangered under state laws in Washington and California, and only occupy a small portion of available suitable habitat in Oregon. Wolves also remain absent across Colorado and the southern Rockies.
“We are gaining ground on recovery in Washington, however, delisting gray wolves requires recovery in a significant portion of historic range,” Chris Bachman, Wildlife Program Director at the Spokane-based Lands Council, said in an email. “Delisting should be based on science, not politics, and the science tells us wolves are not there yet. Wolves need protections to recover, when wolves recover, ecosystems recover. Where the wolf can roam, the Earth is healthy and whole.”
In Montana and Idaho, where Congress intervened to strip wolves of federal protections, nearly 500 have been killed in the past year, including dozens of nursing pups, according to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Utah allows wildlife managers to trap and euthanize wolves to prevent them from reestablishing territory.
“Allowing people to kill wolves in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana has already stunted recovery in those states,” Nokes said. “Applying this same death sentence to wolves throughout the contiguous U.S., would nationalize these negative effects, with potentially catastrophic ripple effects on ecosystems wherever wolves are found today.”
An initiative on the Colorado ballot next week seeks to reintroduce wolves in coming years.
Efforts to delist the gray wolf started soon after they were reintroduced to the northern Rockies. Farmers, ranchers and hunters have since been at odds with conservationists across the West on how best to reestablish the species while providing protections for those with economic interests in keeping wolf populations low – or nonexistent.
“The battle over wolf recovery is, unfortunately, both politically charged and partisan,” Larris said. “For decades, ranchers have demonized wolves because they are an impediment to carefree, inexpensive grazing of private livestock on public lands. Finalizing delisting of wolves a few days before an election is a gift to the ranching and agricultural interests, plain and simple.”