The Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday that it found no need to change the Endangered Species Act protections for certain populations of the gray wolf but instead pledged to develop a first-of-its-kind comprehensive plan to recover the species.
In a highly anticipated and politically fraught decision, the federal agency announced the northern Rocky Mountain population that spans several states will stay off the ESA list of protected species. A larger decision on wolves in other states could now occur by a Feb. 16 court date.
The agency in a news release said it will develop what it called a “first-ever nationwide gray wolf recovery plan.” This would be completed by the end of 2025 and “provide a vision for species recovery that is connected to site-specific actions for reducing threats and conserving listed species and their ecosystems.”
The FWS also highlighted that its “analysis indicates that wolves are not at risk of extinction in the Western United States now or in the foreseeable future” and that “the population size and widespread distribution contribute to the resiliency and redundancy of wolves in this region. The population maintains high genetic diversity and connectivity, further supporting their ability to adapt to future changes.”
This verbiage tracks language in the ESA concerning species that do not warrant listing.
The decision to keep the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population off the ESA list rejected a petition filed in May 2021 by the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and Humane Society of the United States.
Citing in part the renewed hunting of wolves being permitted in some Western states, the conservation groups declared in the petition that “unless the Service restores federal protections, the region’s wolves will soon lose decades of progress toward recovery.”
The regulatory fate of the larger wolf population in the rest of the lower 48 states has been even messier, and the odds of continued litigation and intensified congressional rhetoric are approximately 100 percent no matter how the agency acts.
Following earlier federal protection decisions, FWS in 1978 listed the gray wolf in most of the United States as an endangered species and designated the wolf’s Minnesota population as threatened. Congress chipped away at this in 2011, with a rider to an appropriations bill that delisted the northern Rocky Mountains population and blocked courts from second-guessing the move.
The Rocky Mountains population includes wolves found in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, and a small portion of northern Utah.
In 2013, FWS proposed the removal of federal wolf protections across the lower 48 states, except for Mexican wolves. This proposal stalled, but in 2019 FWS again proposed nationwide removal of gray wolf protections. That rule became effective on Jan. 4, 2021, during the final weeks of the Trump administration.
Once targeted by government-backed eradication campaigns that wiped out large numbers of animals, the wolves have since rebounded in some places. FWS said Friday that 2022 data found about 2,800 wolves across 286 packs in seven Western states. Still, environmentalists contend the species remains on thin ice.
After the Trump administration’s 2021 delisting, litigation ensued, and in February 2022, a federal judge restored the ESA protections
“The Service failed to adequately consider the threats to wolves outside of the core populations in the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains in delisting the entire species,” U.S. District Judge Jeremy White wrote.
White, who was appointed by President George W. Bush to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, added that FWS concluded “with little explanation or analysis, that wolves outside of the core populations are not necessary to the recovery of the species [and] … in so concluding, the Service avoided assessing the impact of delisting on these wolves.”
FWS appealed White’s decision to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where it has been on a hold that had been set to expire Friday but has since been extended until Feb. 16.
Anticipating the decision that FWS has said for months would be announced by Feb. 2, Republican House members have already urged congressional leaders to include a gray wolf delisting in an upcoming fiscal 2024 appropriations bill.
“Republican and Democrat administrations have both attempted to delist the gray wolf but were challenged with politically motivated lawsuits by extremist organizations hoping to fundraise on keeping the species listed for an eternity,” Rep. Michelle Fischbach (R-Minn.) said several hours before FWS announced its decisions Friday.
On Thursday, the eve of the agency’s long-promised gray wolf announcement, the chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) led GOP members of the panel in a separate letter to FWS demanding documents concerning plans for a mediation consultant to lead a “national dialogue” about the wolf.
Last fall, the agency hired wildlife conflict specialist Francine Madden on a three-year contract to oversee what it called “transparent and thoughtful conversations” concerning the gray wolf’s status, adding that the agency “believes that the conversation is best led by an outside party.”
Clarification: This story has been updated after publication to clarify the reach of the Fish and Wildlife Service decision Friday about the gray wolf’s endangered species status.