Wolves Will Regain Federal Protection in Much of the U.S.

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Gray wolves will regain federal protection across most of the lower 48 United States following a court ruling Thursday that struck down a Trump administration decision to take the animals off the endangered species list.

Senior District Judge Jeffrey S. White, of United States District Court for the Northern District of California, found that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, in declaring wolf conservation a success and removing the species from federal protection, did not adequately consider threats to wolves outside of the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains where they have rebounded most significantly.

Although the decision to delist wolves came under the Trump administration, the Biden administration has defended it in court.

“Wolves need federal protection, period,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization that has helped lead the legal fight. “The Fish and Wildlife Service should be ashamed of defending the gray wolf delisting.”

A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency was reviewing the decision.

The Trump administration’s decision to delist came despite concerns from some of the scientists who performed the independent review that is required before the Fish and Wildlife Service can remove a species from federal protection.

The ruling applies in 44 of the lower 48 states. Wolves in Montana and Idaho will remain unprotected because they were delisted by Congress in 2011. Wolves in Wyoming were delisted by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2017. Wolves in New Mexico, which are considered a separate population, never lost protection.

After gray wolves were removed from the endangered species list, wolf hunting increased sharply in some states, including Wisconsin. In the spring of 2021, the state had to end its wolf hunting season early, after more than 200 wolves were killed in less than 60 hours, far exceeding the state’s quota of 119. Ojibwe tribes were furious, having decided not to fill their tribal quota because wolves have a sacred place in their culture.

Deb Haaland, the secretary of the interior, published an essay in USA Today this week expressing concern about threats to wolves. She said that she was alarmed by reports from Montana, where nearly 20 wolves have been killed this season after leaving the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. The Fish and Wildlife Service, she wrote, was evaluating whether it would be necessary to relist wolves in the Northern Rockies.

Wolves were some of the first animals shielded by the 1973 Endangered Species Act, and the decision has been politically charged ever since. Big predators have long been controversial in Western states, where ranchers complain of lost livestock.

Hunter Nation, an advocacy group that filed a brief in the case, criticized the ruling. “We are disappointed that an activist judge from California decided to tell farmers, ranchers, and anyone who supports a balanced ecosystem with common-sense predator management that he knows better than them,” said Luke Hilgemann, the president and chief executive of the group.

Judge White was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2002.

Before the arrival of Europeans, gray wolves thrived from coast to coast in North America, living in forests, prairies, mountains and wetlands. But two centuries of eradication campaigns caused them to nearly disappear from the lower 48 states. By the mid-20th century, perhaps 1,000 were left south of the Canadian border, mainly in northern Minnesota.

Their numbers began to rebound after the species was placed under federal protection in the 1960s. In the mid-1990s, the Fish and Wildlife Service embarked on a new chapter of wolf conservation, relocating 31 wolves from Canada into Yellowstone National Park. Their numbers quickly increased, and in 2020 about 6,000 wolves ranged the western Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains, with small numbers spreading into Oregon, Washington and California.

The United States is also home to the red wolf, a species that is listed as endangered. Its historical range included North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.

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