Gray wolf protections lifted by Trump administration

Wolf’s endangered species delisting is a long-held goal of some Republican lawmakers, ranchers and hunting groups

A gray wolf in Montana. (Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
A gray wolf in Montana. (Avalon/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Posted October 29, 2020 at 11:13am

Gray wolves will lose their protection under the Endangered Species Act across the contiguous United States, a long-held goal of some Republican lawmakers, ranchers and hunting groups.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced the new rule Thursday at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington, Minn., a swing state in the race for the White House.

“Multiple states, including Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington already manage healthy and sustainable gray wolf populations,” Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said in a statement. “Now, under expanded state management, impacted communities will be able to determine how best to preserve gray wolf populations while protecting other native species and livestock.”

Opponents to the wolves’ protection under the ESA have long cited the animals’ threats to livestock and ranching as reasons to delist the species, urging state officials to assume management instead of the federal government.

Bernhardt said the gray wolf packs in the Lower 48 states had recovered sufficiently to justify the delisting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will monitor gray wolves for five years under the rule, which would turn management of the animals over to states and tribes. Interior is expected to publish the rule on Tuesday, Election Day.

“Today is a win for the gray wolf and the American people,” said FWS Director Aurelia Skipwith. “I am grateful for these partnerships with States and Tribes and their commitment to sustainable management of wolves that will ensure the species’ long-term survival following this delisting.”

The Trump administration has sought to weaken the ESA and the rule would be the latest in a series of attempts to delist gray wolves. In the 2000s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an Interior division, made several attempts to delist or reclassify gray wolves but courts maintained their classification.

'Premature'

Environmental groups and biologists largely dispute gray wolves have recovered enough to support removing the protections, especially in the Mountain West, where wolf populations lag behind the packs in the upper Midwest. Animal protection groups are all but certain to sue to block the rule, which is scheduled to take effect 60 days after the rule’s publication.

“Stripping protections for gray wolves is premature and reckless,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, the president and CEO of the Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. “Gray wolves occupy only a fraction of their former range and need continued federal protection to fully recover,” Rappaport Clark said. “We will be taking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court to defend this iconic species.”

Citing FWS and state-level figures, the Western Environmental Law Center said it would sue, adding while there are roughly 4,400 wolves in the Great Lakes region, there are far fewer in western states. WELC said Washington has 108, Oregon has 158 and California has 15 – numbers they say underscore how wolves have not recovered.

“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, a Western Environmental Law Center attorney, said in a statement. “Allowing people to kill wolves in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana has already stunted recovery in those states.”

Dozens of House Democrats wrote Bernhardt in May 2019 in opposition to delisting gray wolves. “Federal protections are still essential to help wolves return to suitable habitat where they used to roam,” they said, adding that wild wolves have never killed anyone in the Lower 48. “Humans pose a far greater threat to wolves than wolves post to us."

Redefining 'habitat'

In July, the Interior and Commerce departments moved to redefine the term "habitat" under the ESA to exclude certain areas the protected species does not occupy but are likely needed for their recovery in the future. Those areas have long been interpreted by federal agencies as covered under the law, and they are likely to be vital territory to aid species in their recovery as the climate warms, legal experts say.

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When the FWS proposed the wolf rule in March 2019, the agency said gray wolves had recovered sufficiently to no longer need federal protection under the law.

"Glad to see it," Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., told CQ at the time. "Any time we can move a species off the endangered species list should be a victory."

Thursday's proposal is not expected to apply to Mexican wolves, a subspecies of grays, which are listed as a different animal type under the law.

Near extinction

Environmental groups disagree that gray wolf populations have recovered significantly from their low population numbers and say delisting is premature.

Hunting, federal and state bounties and other human activities plunged the species — which have ranges in the upper Midwest and in the Mountain West — to near-extinction in the 1960s. By then, the only group of gray wolves remaining in the lower 48 states was in northern Minnesota.

"This delisting is an unfortunate and politically driven decision as the best available science provides evidence that the gray wolf's population is not fully restored throughout its historic range," Jacob Carter, a research scientist for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a UCS blog post on Oct. 19, in anticipation of the rule's release.

Gray wolves were first listed for federal protection in 1967 under a precursor to the ESA.

Interior and White House budget officials held remote meetings with outside advocates as recently as last week over the rule.

The UN warned in a landmark report in May last year that the human species has pushed about 1 million plants and animals to the brink of extinction.

The 145 authors of that report warned that biodiversity is collapsing at an "unprecedented rate" due to human activity.