Wolves To Be Relisted Across Most of the Nation
A federal judge in the Northern District of California issued a ruling Thursday that will place gray wolves in 44 states back under federal protection. The decision vacated a 2020 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) decision that delisted gray wolves throughout most of the country, so wolves in 44 states will once again be classified as endangered, while wolves in Minnesota will be treated as threatened.
Wolves in the Northern Rockies distinct population segment area were not subject to the lawsuit, so wolves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, a small northern corner of Utah, and the eastern portions of Washington and Oregon remain under state management. The court’s ruling also has no impact on red wolves or Mexican wolves, both of which remain protected pursuant to the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The ruling is expected to impact Colorado’s current plans to reintroduce wolves into the state in accordance with a voter initiative. Colorado wildlife officials will no longer have jurisdiction over its wolf population, which will be treated as an endangered species pursuant to federal law.
The ESA prohibits the “take” of endangered species, with take defined as “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” Killing an endangered wolf could result in fines of up to $100,000, one year in jail, or both.
The ESA does include provisions for cooperating with state agencies in conservation, but it appears that federal permission would be needed for the Colorado reintroduction to move forward – and it may involve further environmental review. The day before the federal court ruling, Colorado Parks & Wildlife darted and radiocollared a young female wolf from a pack of eight wolves that are roaming near Walden after two adult wolves moved from Wyoming into Colorado and had six pups last spring.
The court found major flaws in the FWS delisting rule, including that the agency had 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.
Another flaw focused on how FWS dismissed the loss of historic range for wolves. The court noted that although FWS “asserts that it considered the effect the lost historical range may have on the current and future viability of the species, the Final Rule fails to adequately grapple with the causes and effects of historical range loss. Accordingly, the Service again fails to adequately address the possible enduring consequences of significant loss of historical range.”
The court also took issue with the FWS determination that wolves in the West Coast States are not genetically distinct from wolves in the Northern Rockies. Documents in the administrative record indicate that genetic analysis of West Coast wolves shows that all gray wolves occupying Oregon descend from Northern Rocky Mountain (NRM) wolves while some wolves in Washington have mixed NRM and coastal ancestry. FWS concluded that “listed wolves in the West Coast States are not genetically distinct from the NRM wolves,” but that determination “fails to address the best available science on this issue, “according to the court. “The primary studies relied on make clear wolves with coastal ancestry ‘should be considered a priority for conservation given their unique evolutionary heritage and adaptations.’”
Defendant-Intervenor NRA argues that the Service evaluated the protections offered by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management and found they would not increase human- caused mortality to a level that threatens the species.
The court also pointed out that “wolves in the western States, including the Central Rocky Mountains, reside largely on federal public lands; however, the U.S. Forest Service land management plans in the West Coast states do not contain standards and guidelines specific to wolf management.”
Although FWS’s rule referred to certain existing mechanisms, such as the sensitive species listings for both agencies, “it does not explain how these mechanisms will ensure a sustainable wolf population post-delisting. For this reason, the Court concludes that the Service’s decision that post-delisting federal public land management regimes provide adequate regulatory mechanisms was arbitrary and capricious.”
Although wolf advocates had argued that state management of wolves had expanded the number of wolves humans can kill, and claimed that would result in a massive wolf population reduction, the court didn’t find that argument compelling. The court noted that FWS acknowledged that hunting seasons would likely lead to an initial reduction in wolf population, but “concluded that deliberate reductions in population size through harvest would be unlikely to bring the population below the recovery thresholds.”
The lawsuit was brought forth by Defenders of Wildlife, WildEarth Guardians, Natural Resources Defense Council, and other groups. As the next step, FWS will publish a notice formally withdrawing its delisting rule. The agency will also continue its review of whether wolves in the Northern Rockies should be placed back under federal protection.
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