Unfortunately, history has repeated itself when it comes to gray wolves. A federal judge has—once again—overturned a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) rule that removed gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) lists of endangered and threatened species.
In early 2020, the Service removed gray wolves in the lower 48 U.S. States from the ESA lists. This meant wolves across the country joined the ranks of those in the Northern Rocky Mountains States of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, where wolves were already delisted, and returned to state management. In delisting gray wolves throughout the lower 48 States, the Service trumpeted the fact that the largest population of wolves, in the Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, has exceeded recovery goals for 20 years. The Service has repeatedly tried to remove these wolves from under the ESA—a move that would free up resources to protect truly at-risk species.
Of course, anti-hunting groups immediately sued to put wolves back under the ESA. Although these groups acknowledged that some populations of gray wolves have recovered, they sought to force the Service to restore wolves everywhere—from Maine to Washington State. SCI, along with the National Rifle Association (NRA), intervened in these suits to defend the Service’s science-based delisting rule. Unfortunately, a federal court in the Northern District of California largely ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor.
The court misinterprets the ESA, and raises the bar far too high for a recovered species to ever get delisted. It relies on technicalities in the ESA that elevate form over substance. The court held that the Service cannot delist gray wolves nationally based on the wolves’ recovery in their two core population areas of the Great Lakes region and the Northern Rocky Mountains. Although the Service has focused all its recovery efforts on these areas, the court held that the Service must apply the ESA’s threats analysis to wolves in all their possible range. For this reason, the court vacated the rule and relisted gray wolves across the lower 48 States under the ESA (except in the Northern Rocky Mountains, where they were delisted by Congress).
SCI CEO W. Laird Hamberlin expressed disappointment in the court’s ruling. “With due respect, the judge’s decision is wrong. It runs counter to Congress’ express intent in the ESA to conserve species to the point that they no longer need the ESA’s protections.”
As one bright spot, the court agreed with SCI and the NRA’s arguments with respect to state management of wolves. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ contentions that the Service did not and could not properly consider state management plans, and the court instead upheld the Service’s conclusion that state management does not pose a threat to gray wolf populations.
SCI and the NRA will pursue every avenue of overturning the district court’s decision.