5 things to know about gray wolves regaining Endangered Species Act protection

Most importantly: The recent relisting doesn’t apply to the Rocky Mountains.


A federal judge announced big news last week: Gray wolves will regain protection in the United States.

Only in certain parts of the country, however. 

On Feb. 10, Senior District Judge Jeffrey S. White of the District Court for the Northern District of California found that when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed gray wolves from Endangered Species Act protection in 2020, the agency failed to adequately consider threats to wolf populations that had not rebounded as strongly as others.

The ruling overturns the Trump administration’s decision to remove the animals from the endangered species list. And while some conservationists are cheering this as a win, protections remain incomplete in the West. That’s because high-profile wolf populations aren’t affected by the ruling. Some of the West’s most notable packs — those mired in controversy near Yellowstone National Park in Montana and Wyoming, as well as wolves in Idaho — are still legal to hunt. 

The shifting status of wolves is set against a backdrop of wildly varying attitudes toward apex predators. Many hunters and ranchers believe protections are not only no longer warranted, they also contribute to wolf attacks on livestock and big game, while conservationists note that wolves still don’t occupy anywhere close to their historical range. A 2020 ballot initiative to reintroduce the species in Colorado split down geographic lines on a slim margin, with urban voters mostly in favor and rural voters opposed. 

Confused? Don’t be. Here are the most important takeaways. 

The Wapiti Lake wolf pack in Yellowstone Stone National Park, Wyoming. Despite a ruling protecting the species, wolves near Yellowstone are still legal to hunt.
Julia Cook

1. Rocky Mountain wolves aren’t included 

Last week’s decision affects 44 states in the Lower 48. Wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming lost federal protections before wolves elsewhere in the country. They aren’t included in this reinstatement of protections because they were outside the scope of the case, which challenged the Trump administration’s delisting. The Fish and Wildlife Service delisted wolves in Wyoming in 2017, while Congress delisted wolves in Montana and Idaho in 2011. Mexican wolves — the rarest subspecies of gray wolves, found in Arizona and New Mexico — have retained protection as a separate population.

2. In fact … aerial hunting of wolves is legal in Montana (but contested)

Two wildlife advocacy groups are suing Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission over what they say are discrepancies in wolf-hunting regulations. Last week, the groups asked the Lewis and Clark County District Court judge to temporarily halt the hunting of wolves with aircraft, along with hunting while using night vision goggles, infrared and thermal technologies. But hunting wolves from a plane is legal under state law, wildlife officials said in court, noting that the previous prohibition in old hunting regulations was an error. The lawsuit remains ongoing.  

3. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is concerned

In a Feb. 7 USA Today op-ed, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland expressed dismay at the recent killing of 20 wolves that roamed outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, where they are protected. Haaland wrote that she was “alarmed” by recent reports from Montana, where 15 of the 20 died. The hunting and trapping season in Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 3, which hugs Yellowstone to the north, will be closed once 82 wolves have been killed. On Friday, 80 had been killed according to the agency’s wolf harvest dashboard.  

“We have communicated to state officials that these kinds of actions jeopardize the decades of federal and state partnerships that successfully recovered gray wolves in the northern Rockies,” she wrote. Haaland also said the Fish and Wildlife Service will “reinstate federal protections under the ESA for the northern Rocky Mountains’ gray wolf, if necessary.”

Haaland’s comments are important because the delisting decision, which came during the Trump administration, was defended by the Biden administration in court. 

4. Isolated wolf populations tipped the scales 

White’s decision leaned heavily on the status of smaller wolf populations. Fears that those wolves hadn’t recovered to the same extent as those in the Rockies and Midwest and therefore weren’t ready to be returned to state management were also expressed by scientists preparing a delisting review for the Trump administration. White’s ruling calls out the Fish and Wildlife Service for concluding, “with little explanation or analysis, that wolves outside of the core populations are not necessary to the recovery of the species.”  

5. Hunting is off the table in the Great Lakes region

The most obvious impact of the ruling is in the Midwest, where wolf hunting boomed after the canines lost federal protections. In the spring of 2021, wolf hunting in Wisconsin drew attention after the state had to end the season early. More than 200 wolves were killed in less than 60 hours, blowing past the quota of 119 animals and prompting outrage and lawsuits. Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin — Great Lakes states with established populations — hadn’t scheduled any additional wolf hunts since last year and were already in the process of updating their management plans. 

And a bonus!

6. Historically, removing protections is actually bipartisan

Beginning with President George W. Bush, both Democratic and Republican administrations have tried to eliminate or tamp down the federal wolf protections first granted under the Endangered Species Act in 1974. Wolves are likely to remain a political football in the larger predator political arena for quite some time to come.

Kylie Mohr is an editorial intern for High Country News writing from Montana. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy. 


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