February 11, 2022
By Joe Ferronato and Sam Forbes
Yesterday Judge Jeffrey White of the Northern District of California ruled in favor oseveral lawsuits appealing the decision made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist wolves from the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The 2020 decision to delist wolves was controversial, to say the least. Wolves always have hit a soft spot for animal-rights constituents, and they tug on the heartstrings of the public. As soon as the delisting was made public, organizations such as the Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, and WildEarth Guardians swore to take the decision to court and have it overturned. In that, they were successful.
The animal-rights organizations appealed the decision to the Federal District Court and the ruling was made that the decision to delist wolves happened too soon—it was premature and didn’t accurately consider all the populations of wolves in the Lower 48.
Yesterday’s decision overturns the 2020 delisting and takes us back to the days prior to November 2020. That means this: the Northern Rockies, Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, are exempt from the listing and still have state powers to manage the animals in a sustainable manner. So, where the majority of wolves live in the Lower 48, they can still be hunted and managed properly, but the same animal-rights organizations are on the move and want these animals to be protected federally as well, so the fight still rages on.
In a 2020 interview with NPR, Interior secretary David Bernhardt spoke to the delisting saying, "After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery."
Bernhardt was right, wolves have done incredibly well reclaiming their spot as apex predators on the landscape in the Lower 48. The ESA worked, and you would think the anti-hunting organizations would be rejoicing, but no, they take a stance against this decision and sustainable wildlife management practices.
At that time of the delisting, there were more than 6,000 gray wolves in the Lower 48 states. This population was largely clustered in the Northern Rocky Mountains and the Western Great Lakes region and wildlife officials were happy to announce the wolf populations had recovered.
But Judge White found, among other points “the Service’s analysis relied on two core wolf populations to delist wolves nationally and failed to provide a reasonable interpretation of the ‘significant portion of its range’ standard.”
It's worth noting Judge White was appointed by George W. Bush and is a lone Republican judge in the Northern District of California. While many will claim the decision may have been politically biased, it was most likely not. The lawsuit found holes in the original delisting that made it a fairly easy decision for Judge White.
Let’s break the real issue down further: There are only a few places where wolves occur in the U.S. right now, but make no mistake their range is expanding. The recent lawsuit brought up points from the original delisting that were a possible oversights when considering wolves being dropped from the ESA. The anti-hunters argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service based their decision on the populations found in the Great Lakes region and the Northern Rockies—but the decision affected wolves that are found in the rest of the states as well.
Throughout the years, the Department of the Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service has tried to delist wolves several times; they did this by reclassifying certain populations segments and listing them as either threatened or endangered in places, or, in the case of the 2009 decision regarding the Northern Rockies region, recovered and a healthy population.
During the 2020 delisting, the U.S. Department of the Interior noted:
"The gray wolf is the latest in a strong list of ESA recoveries that includes the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, American alligator, brown pelican, and 48 other species of animals and plants in U.S. states, territories and waters. Countless more have improved or stabilized. Collectively, these successes demonstrate that the ESA can make a difference for imperiled species. No administration in history has recovered more imperiled species in their first term than the Trump Administration…To provide context for this in looking at other administrations in their first term, the Obama Administration recovered six species; the Bush Administration recovered eight species; and the Clinton Administration recovered nine species.”
The delisting was based on two populations of wolves in the contiguous United States, the oversight, as we find it, is that the other 44 states outside of the Minnesota gray wolf entity do not have a population of wolves established or at a sustainable level. Therefore, the recent lawsuit brought forth by the anti-hunters was successful.
According to the legal filing from the Northern District Court of California:
“Following these delisting efforts, two gray wolf entities remained protected under the ESA: the Minnesota gray wolf entity, listed as threatened; and the gray wolf entity in all or portions of 44 lower United States and Mexico, which excludes the NRM wolves, listed as endangered. In March 2019, the Service proposed eliminating protections for the gray wolf throughout the contiguous United States. AR_20097; Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Removing the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, 84 Fed. Reg. 9648 (Mar. 15, 2019). The Service provided 120 days of public comment on the proposed rule. AR_40. On November 3, 2020, the Service issued its final rule, which removed ESA protections for the two previously listed entities—the Minnesota entity and 44-state entity. AR_38; Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Removing the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) From the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, 85 Fed. Reg. 69,778 (Nov. 3, 2020) (“Final Rule”)."
When animals have federal protections removed, the management then falls upon the individual states. They are then tasked with the appropriate management to sustain the species. Unfortunately, in Wisconsin, the wolf hunt ended with a far-exceeded quota and public uproar and distaste for the hunt. Upon the opening of the hunt, wolves were taken with extreme prejudice. The biggest issue is that 216 wolves were killed in the first two days of the open season in Wisconsin, exceeding the quota numbers by 83%. This only further fueled the fire of the anti-hunters.
Make no mistake, the fight over wolves is as political as it could be, and it most likely always will be. We need to leave wildlife management in the hand of the managers who’ve dedicated their lives to studying these animals. Politics should play no part. Where wolves occur naturally, and have been reintroduced on the ecosystem, they are thriving. Montana and Idaho are exceeding their healthy population numbers—numbers set by the Fish and Wildlife service—by nearly 1000%. And the Great Lakes region has a thriving population of nearly 4,000 animals.
The Sportsmen's Alliance will continue to analyze yesterday’s decision. What’s more, the organization will be at the forefront of the fight to ensure that hunting is used as the primary management tool for local wildlife organizations.
“We’re very disappointed by today’s ruling, as it’s clear that wolves have recovered across their intended range when placed under federal protection,” said Evan Heusinkveld, president and CEO of the Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation, which filed an amicus brief in the court case. “We will continue to work with our partners to ensure recovered wolf populations are properly delisted and returned to state management as was laid out in the 2017 court case.”
As hunters, we need to fight to ensure that wildlife is properly managed for the sustainability of populations for the future. This decision to relist wolves is disappointing, but the lawsuits found holes in the delisting from 2020. We believe that wolves, especially in the Great Lakes region will be delisting again, and the states will be able to manage them as they see fit.
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