Gray Wolves Are Headed For Another Major Legal Battle

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A coalition of environmental and animal protection groups said Wednesday that it will sue to overturn the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to remove Northern Rocky gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act.

The lawsuit would mark the latest chapter in a long-running controversy over the status of gray wolves in the Republican-led states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, which have adopted liberal hunting and trapping seasons in an effort to reduce populations since the delisting ceded management to the states.

The state legislatures of Idaho and Montana took the unusual step of dictating wildlife management by law instead of deferring to wildlife officials and commissions, and stepped in to loosen restrictions on killing wolves in recent years.

Gray wolves in Montana.

Dennis Fast/VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The result is the potential for more effective hunting and trapping seasons that environmental groups say threaten the long-term sustainability of gray wolves, which once teetered on the brink of extirpation from the Lower 48.

Dozens of conservation groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2021 to re-list wolves in response to increased hunting and trapping pressure, highlighting the potential effect of the new laws to facilitate wolf killing.

The Fish and Wildlife Service published a notice in the Federal Register denying the petitions on Wednesday, saying that wolves in the Northern Rockies are no longer “markedly separate” from neighboring populations that have expanded into Oregon, Washington and California.

The agency now considers gray wolves in the Western United States a single population that could merit protections but did not find that the population faces a threat severe enough to warrant Endangered Species Act protection.

Instead, the agency concluded that wolves enjoy abundant habitat and wide distribution. Their tendency to reproduce quickly and disperse to new territory “has allowed wolf populations to withstand relatively high rates of human-caused mortality.”

The groups pushing for re-listing will now take their battle to federal court.

“It’s beyond frustrating that federal officials are harming wolf recovery by denying wolves in the Northern Rockies the powerful federal protections they deserve,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unlike the Fish and Wildlife Service, we refuse to sanction the annual slaughter of hundreds of wolves. Allowing unlimited wolf killing sabotages decades of recovery efforts in the Northern Rockies, as well as those in neighboring West Coast and Southern Rockies states.”

Gray wolves in the Lower 48 states were first listed for Endangered Species Act protection in 1978. The Fish and Wildlife Service restored the animals to the Northern Rockies beginning with releases at Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

In an unprecedented move, Congress bypassed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies in 2011 ― an area that included Idaho and Montana, along with parts of Oregon, Washington and Utah.

Though state wildlife officials made it cheap and easy to hunt and trap wolves, their numbers climbed for the next several years.

But social tolerance is low for wolves in the Northern Rockies, where critics have often viewed the restoration as a federal imposition. Ranching remains a major economic activity, and protecting livestock from wolves imposed new costs.

Bumper stickers are distributed at an anti-wolf event in Bozeman, Montana. Hunters and ranchers in Montana and Idaho say wolves are killing too many game animals, carry disease kill livestock.
Bumper stickers are distributed at an anti-wolf event in Bozeman, Montana. Hunters and ranchers in Montana and Idaho say wolves are killing too many game animals, carry disease kill livestock.

William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images

Wolves can also affect elk populations in states where big game hunting remains a cultural touchstone and significant business. Elk in general have thrived in the Northern Rockies since reintroduction, but wolves can disperse them from local areas where they have long been established and can drive numbers down in locations where the calves already struggle to survive for other reasons.

An Idaho law enacted in 2021 with the support of the livestock lobby allows the killing of an unlimited number of wolves, lets hunters pursue wolves at night and allows contracting third parties to kill wolves. The Montana Legislature also directed its wildlife agency to take more aggressive action against wolves while relaxing hunting and trapping restrictions.

Raising the wolf quota north of Yellowstone resulted in the death of one-third of a population closely watched by eco-tourists in 2022, causing a major uproar.

State data, however, shows that the 2022 wolf harvest declined year-on-year in both Idaho and Montana, raising questions about whether such heavy-handed tactics will have major effects on the population. Full data for the 2023 season is not yet available for Idaho, though Montana is on track for an average year.