Judge restores Gray Wolves’ wards
A federal judge today reinstated Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf, marking a big victory for conservationists in a high-profile fight raging across the western landscape.
In a ruling on three related challenges filed by environmental groups, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White overturned the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to remove the iconic animal from the ESA list.
“The final rule relies on the recovery of major wolf metapopulations in the Great Lakes and the Northern Rocky Mountains to conclude that wolves in all of the lower 48 states are no longer eligible for federal protection,” noted White.
But White, who was appointed by President George W. Bush to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, said “the Service has not given sufficient consideration to threats to wolves outside of these main populations”.
White added that the FWS has concluded “with little explanation or analysis, that wolves outside of core populations are not necessary for the recovery of the species.” [and] …by so concluding, the Service avoided assessing the impact of radiation on these wolves.
The decision again designates the gray wolf as an endangered species in the lower 48 states, with the exception of the Northern Rockies population, for which wolf protections were removed by Congress in 2011. In Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, state governments manage wolf populations.
Environmental groups applauded the 26-page opinion, which was made on cross-motions for summary judgment.
“By design, the Endangered Species Act does not give the federal government the discretion to abandon western wolf recovery in certain areas due to progress in other parts of the country” , said Kelly Nokes, an attorney at the Western Environmental Law Center. “Today’s decision will bolster the recovery of western wolves – a keystone species wherever they exist – and improve ecosystem health more broadly.”
On January 14, 2021, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit challenging the delisting of the gray wolf on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association, Oregon Wild and the Humane Society of the United States.
The lawsuit, and a similar lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and WildEarth Guardians, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (E&E News PM, January 25, 2021).
In March 2019, the FWS proposed delisting the species, first identified as endangered decades ago, after concluding that the population of the lower 48 species had rebounded. The delisting took effect at the beginning of January 2021.
The wolf population now numbers around 6,000 animals in the continental United States.
Before gray wolves received ESA protection, their population declined due to government-funded bounty programs aimed at eradicating predators and converting historic habitat to farmland, among other causes.
“Wolf populations are remarkably resilient as long as there is adequate food supply and human-caused mortality regulation,” FWS noted.
The agency said this afternoon that it is reviewing the decision.
In a July 29 letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, 85 members of Congress said “we believe the Trump administration has deliberately ignored the science of ESA listing decisions in favor of political calculations. supporters when she decided to remove federal protections” in late 2020.
“Since federal protections officially ended in January 2021, several states, particularly in the Midwest and Northwest, have adopted anti-wolf policies, underscoring the need for strong federal protections,” the lawmakers wrote.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, for example, authorized a hunt in late February at the height of the breeding season, with a quota of 119 wolves, but issued 2,400 hunting tags, nearly double the estimated population. , according to the letter.
The Biden administration had earlier announced that the Department of the Interior would review the delisting of the gray wolf, as well as other endangered species decisions made by the Trump administration (Greenwire, January 20).
“This decision is a huge win for wolves in states like California, Oregon and Utah, where they have yet to reach stable and robust populations,” said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist and executive director of the Western Watersheds Project. “We are relieved to have avoided premature delisting with this case, but there is still much work to be done to protect wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, where they face some of their greatest threats.”
Collette Adkins, director of carnivore conservation at the CBD, said she hopes “this decision will finally convince the Fish and Wildlife Service to abandon its longstanding and misguided efforts to remove federal wolf protections. Instead, the agency should work to restore these large, ecologically important carnivores to places like the southern Rockies and the northeastern United States.