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Gray Wolves Are Back on the Endangered Species List—Most of Them, Anyway

Court tosses Trump-era rule change that removed animals’ federal protections.

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Gray wolves throughout most of the U.S. will once again enjoy federal protection under the Endangered Species Act after a judge threw out a Trump administration decision to delist the species.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service struck wolves from the Endangered Species Act list in 2020, arguing that their populations had recovered sufficiently to return their management to the states. In a statement at the time, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said that the species had “exceeded all its conservation goals for recovery.” However, some scientists who reviewed the proposal disagreed, with four out of the five members of a required independent review panel raising concerns with the agency’s proposal; one, Carlos Carroll, a biologist with the Klamath Center for Conservation Research, told the New York Times that he thought the USFWS’s plan was “critically flawed.” After the agency put it into place over their objections, a handful of conservation organizations, including Earthjustice and the Center for Biological Diversity, sued, challenging first the Trump administration and then President Joe Biden’s Interior Department in court. 

In an opinion delivered on Thursday, Senior District Judge Jeffrey S. White of United States District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that the government had not properly considered the challenges the species’s recovery faced outside of the Midwest and the Northern Rockies. 

The court’s decision won’t apply in Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming, where gray wolves were separately delisted by an earlier act of Congress. New Mexico’s wolves, which the Endangered Species Act considers to be a separate population, won’t receive protection under the act either.

The decision has scrapped plans for a fall wolf hunt in Wisconsin, where hunters last spring took 216 wolves, 82% above the state wildlife department’s target, after a lawsuit by advocacy group Hunter Nation forced Wisconsin to hold a wolf hunt for the first time in 7 years on less than a month’s notice. In a press release, the state’s Department of Natural Resources wrote that due to the court’s ruling, the state was “not authorized to implement a wolf harvest season.”

Montana’s wolf hunt also faced criticism in January, after officials at Yellowstone National Park announced that hunters there and in Wyoming had killed 23 of the park’s resident wolves after they wandered outside Yellowstone’s boundaries. Less than a month later, Montana announced it would end its hunt early. In an op-ed published in USA Today this week, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said she was “alarmed” by news from the state, and that her department was investigating whether to relist wolves in the Northern Rockies.