Critics say decision unwarranted
The Trump administration will end federal protections for gray wolves under the federal Endangered Species Act, citing “successful recovery” of the species across the country.
Removing gray wolves from the federal endangered species list means that the management of wolves will be turned over to state and tribal wildlife management agencies, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitors the species for five years.
In an announcement on Oct. 29, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt said the species is no longer considered threatened or endangered. “After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery,” Bernhardt said.
In Washington, wolves in the western two-thirds of the state are currently protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. In 2011, wolves in the eastern third of Washington, roughly east of Highway 97, were deemed sufficiently recovered and removed from federal protection.
The Methow Valley, which has three known wolf packs that occupy territory in and around the valley, is within the area where wolves have remained under federal endangered species protection. The Methow Valley is home to the longest existing wolf pack in the state – the Lookout Pack – which was discovered in 2008 and was the first known resident pack in Washington since wolves were essentially eliminated throughout the state by the early 1900s.
Gray wolves are protected under state law as an endangered species throughout Washington. Under the state’s Wolf Management and Conservation Plan, protections can be lifted when wolves are considered to be recovered, which is determined by population, distribution and reproduction.
The long-anticipated move to remove federal protections from gray wolves is called a success story by the Trump administration and was applauded by cattle and sheep producers, hunting organizations and farm bureaus. But it is criticized by conservationists who say that the decision is not based on sound science and is premature, because wolves are still functionally extinct in most of their historic range in the lower 48 states.
Courts may decide
“This is no ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment for wolf recovery,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice. “Wolves are only starting to get a toehold in places like Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, and wolves need federal protection to explore habitat in the southern Rockies and the Northeast. This delisting decision is what happens when bad science drives bad policy — and it’s illegal, so we will see them in court.”
“Again and again, the courts have rejected premature removal of wolf protections,” said Collette Adkins of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The courts recognize, even if the feds don’t, that the Endangered Species Act requires real wolf recovery, including in the southern Rockies and other places with ideal wolf habitat.”
Once found nationwide, wolves were hunted, trapped and poisoned into near extinction by the early 1900s. In 1978, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protected gray wolves in the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act.
Under endangered species protections, populations have rebounded in some areas, including the Great Lakes and portions of the West. They have been removed from the federal endangered list in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and portions of Oregon, Utah and Washington.
The most recent data from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its state partners show an estimated 4,400 wolves inhabit the western Great Lakes states, but only 108 wolves in Washington State, 158 in Oregon, and 15 in California, according to the Kettle Range Conservation Group based in Republic, Washington.
Those numbers lay the groundwork for a legal challenge planned by a coalition of Western conservation groups, said Timothy Coleman, director of the Kettle Range Conservation Group.
“It is illegitimate for the Trump Administration to remove protection for a small population of state-listed endangered wolves in Washington State,” Coleman said. “Outside of northeast Washington, just a couple of wolf packs exist and there’s just one pack in all of western Washington, including high-quality habitat in Olympic and North Cascades National Parks. Northeast (Washington) wolf packs are a key source population essential to the reestablishment of genetically diverse wolf packs across the state and Pacific Northwest.”
The rule lifting ESA protections for gray wolves excludes Mexican wolves in the Southwest. That species remains listed under the ESA. The final rule removing gray wolves from ESA protections will be effective 60 days after publication in the Federal Register.