In the Spotlight
Mostly due to federal predator control and conflicts with the livestock industry, the gray wolf was extirpated from the West by 1945. Today, after centuries of fear and superstition, research has given the wolf a new image as a social creature with an indispensible role in ecosystems — and Endangered Species Act protection gave it a new chance to thrive. Unfortunately, the beautiful carnivore is still persecuted by federal predator control and poachers, and most wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains (all but those in Wyoming) have been removed from the endangered species list — even though these amazing animals have a long way to go before recovery.
The Center has been fighting to earn back Endangered Species Act protection for all northern Rockies gray wolves since February 2008, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would remove their federal safeguards, leaving wolf management to individual states that refused to take the animal’s conservation seriously. Immediately after the announcement took effect, wolves began falling victim to bullets — so a coalition of groups, including the Center, filed suit. In July, after 100-plus northern Rockies wolves had already been indiscriminately shot, a judge temporarily restored the wolves to the endangered species list — and in September, the Service withdrew from the suit. Just before the Bush administration left office, it announced a rule to strip protections from gray wolves in the Rockies and the Midwest — and though the rule was halted when President Barack Obama took office, in March 2009 the Service moved forward with delisting the wolves anyway. The Center and allies filed suit in June, and in August 2010 a judge reinstated protections for all northern Rockies wolves, preventing wolf hunting from going forward in Montana and Idaho.
But in April 2011 Congress put a rider on a must-pass budget bill that stripped Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in all of Montana and Idaho, the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, and a small portion of northern Utah — an unprecedented action that, for the first time in the history of the Act, removed a species from the endangered list by political fiat instead of science. Given license to kill by the feds, both Montana and Idaho have wolf plans that call for drastic reductions in wolf populations, primarily by allowing hunting and trapping. Idaho’s legislature is also doing its fair share to reduce the population, creating a Wolf Depredation Control Board that receives funding of up to $620,000 annually — $510,000 of which must be used to kill wolves. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has also joined the attack on wolves, utlizing Wildlife Services to aerially gun down wolves in remote and wild areas of Idaho, including the Lolo Zone in northern Idaho. Although Idaho and Montana claim that wolf populations are stable, a new study casts serious doubt on these assertions.
Luckily Wyoming wolves got their protection back: Following a lawsuit by the Center and allies, in 2015 the Fish and Wildlife Service officially reinstated national safeguards for wolves there after the court ruled that state protections were not adequate. But the wolves are again vulnerable: In January 2016 the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee passed the so-called “Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2016,” with the inclusion of an amendment to permanently end Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in Wyoming and the western Great Lakes states.
Even before the 2009 delisting, northern Rockies wolves had no easy time of it. In 2003, the Fish and Wildlife Service prematurely downlisted them from endangered to threatened status, sparking a suit by the Center and allies, after which the wolves’ endangered standing was restored. The Center has also forced the U.S. Department of Agriculture to agree to assess the environmental effects of a sheep-grazing station near Yellowstone National Park, which threatens wolves’ ability to successfully migrate between the Park and central Idaho; such migration is vital to ending the genetic isolation of Yellowstone wolves.
In fact, genetic isolation threatens all gray wolves, whose three main populations — in the northern Rockies, upper Midwest and Southwest — are small and disconnected. To spur true, nationwide gray wolf recovery, in July 2010 the Center petitioned the Obama administration for a national recovery plan to establish wolf populations in suitable habitat in the Pacific Northwest, California, Great Basin, southern Rocky Mountains, Great Plains and New England.
Furthermore, federal oversight of wolf management in the northern Rockies is set to end in May 2016. In January 2016 the Center and allies petitioned for the Service to continue monitoring northern Rocky Mountains gray wolves for another five years — crucial to ensure that the wolf population doesn’t slip to dangerously low levels. We filed a notice of intent to sue in March after the agency failed to respond.
In June 2016 five conservation groups including the Center filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services’ killing of gray wolves in Idaho. The agency had killed at least 72 wolves in Idaho in the previous year, using methods including foothold traps, wire snares that strangle wolves, and aerial gunning from helicopters.
2016 lawsuit against Wildlife Services over Idaho wolf killings
2016 Center petition to extend monitoring period
2014 opinion reinstating protections to Wyoming wolves
2012 Center notice of intent to sue for Wyoming wolves
2012 Wyoming Gray Wolf Management Plan
2012 comments on Wyoming wolf delisting
2009 request to halt wolf hunts
2009 lawsuit against delisting
2008 delisting announcement
2008 notice of intent to sue over delisting
2008 settlement of USDA sheep-station suit
1987 recovery plan
Contact: Andrea Santarsiere