Fish And Wildlife Service Declines To Place Gray Wolves Under ESA, Opts For National Recovery Plan

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declined to list wolves in the Northern Rockies and Western states under the Endangered Species Act/USFWS file

Gray wolves in the Western United States and the Northern Rockies of the country do not need Endangered Species Act protections, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has decided, opting instead to work on a national recovery plan for the canines.

“Gray wolves are listed under the ESA as endangered in 44 states, threatened in Minnesota, and under state jurisdiction in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and portions of eastern Oregon and Washington,” the agency said in declining a listing position filed by a handful of conservation groups. “Based on the latest data as of the end of 2022, there were approximately 2,797 wolves distributed across at least 286 packs in seven states in the Western United States. This 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.”

The decision, announced Friday, spurred wide-ranging criticism from conservationists.

“I’m incredibly disappointed that the Fish and Wildlife Service is turning a blind eye to the cruel, aggressive wolf-killing laws in Montana and Idaho,” said Kristine Akland, northern Rockies program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “By denying protections to these beautiful creatures the Service is letting northern Rockies states continue erasing decades of recovery efforts.”

The Center also said that “Idaho law lets the state hire private contractors to kill wolves, lets hunters and trappers kill an unlimited number of wolves and permits year-round trapping on private land. It also allows hunters and trappers to kill wolves by chasing them down with hounds and all-terrain vehicles. In 2022 and 2023 alone, Idaho hunters and trappers killed more than 560 wolves. In Montana, wolf hunters and trappers can now use night-vision scopes and spotlights on private land, strangulation snares on public and private land, and bait to lure wolves. A single hunter can purchase up to 10 wolf-hunting licenses, and trappers have a bag limit of 10 wolves. That means someone who has both hunting and trapping tags can kill 20 of the animals.”

During Montana’s 2022 season for wolves, 258 were killed by hunters and trappers, who were eligible for bounties to cover their costs. So far during the 2023, which runs until March 15, 2024, more than 200 wolves have been taken, said the Center, which might pursue legal measures in a bid to overturn the Service’s decision.

At Defenders of Wildlife, President and CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark said, “[S]tarting in 2011, wolves in the Northern Rockies were stripped of Endangered Species Act protections and are now managed by states increasingly hostile toward wolves. Since wolves lost federal protections, unsustainable and cruel hunting regulations championed by anti-wildlife politicians and policymakers are condemning wolves to being recklessly pursued and killed throughout the Northern Rockies. We will continue to work tirelessly to defend wolves and deploy coexistence strategies working with ranchers and other stakeholders to ensure wolves are secure and thriving across the western landscape.”

At the Endangered Species Coalition, Executive Director Susan Holmes expressed disappointment at the decision, saying the Fish and Wildlife Service “is refusing to hold the states accountable to wolf conservation commitments they made a decade ago. In the years since wolves were delisted, Idaho and Montana have enacted increasingly aggressive wolf-killing measures, including trapping, snaring, 11-month-long seasons and more, all of which threaten to roll back one of America’s greatest wildlife restoration achievements.”

Also critical of the decision was U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, who said, “[D]enying ESA protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies ignores the existential threat—which the Service has acknowledged—that reckless state laws, like those in Montana and Idaho, pose to the species. From allowing the killing of wolf pups to authorizing kills of more than 40 percent of their state’s wolf population, these state regulations have proven to be anti-science, anti-conservation, and cruel. And now they’ve gotten the rubber stamp from FWS to maintain this status quo.”

In its announcement declining the listing request, Fish and Wildlife said it would launch “a process to develop a first-ever nationwide gray wolf recovery plan by December 12, 2025. Recovery plans provide a vision for species recovery that is connected to site-specific actions for reducing threats and conserving listed species and their ecosystems. Facilitating a more durable and holistic approach to wolf recovery must go beyond the ESA. The Service also recently announced a new effort to create and foster a national dialogue around how communities can live with gray wolves to include conflict prevention, long-term stability and community security. These discussions, led by a third-party convenor, will help inform the Service’s policies and future rulemaking about wolves, and include those who live with wolves and those who do not but want to know they have a place on the landscape.”
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