Gray wolves in the western United States, including in Eastern Washington, are a step closer to receiving endangered species protection from the federal government.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced last month that wolves in the West may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Sept. 17 announcement begins a formal status review of gray wolves across the western United States.
Last fall, in one of its final acts, the Trump administration ended federal protections for gray wolves under the ESA, citing “successful recovery” of the species across the country. Management of wolves was turned over to state and tribal wildlife management agencies. The decision by FWS to review gray wolf status was based largely on new laws in Idaho and Montana that significantly expand hunting of wolves.
FWS was asked to review the status of gray wolves in two petitions filed earlier this year by several conservation groups. FWS found the petitioners presented “substantial information that potential increases in human-caused mortality may pose a threat to the gray wolf in the western U.S.,” according to a news release from FWS.
The conservation groups claimed that regulatory changes in Idaho and Montana pose a threat to wolves by expanding the methods of hunting them “such that the species may become threatened or endangered,” FWS said.
FWS agreed with the conservation groups’ claims that “new regulatory mechanisms in Idaho and Montana may be inadequate to address this threat. Therefore the Service finds that gray wolves in the western U.S. may warrant listing,” FWS said.
In their petitions, the conservation groups proposed listing the gray wolf Northern Rocky Mountain Distinct Population Segment (DPS) as a threatened or endangered species. Under the ESA, a DPS is a portion of a species’ population and is described in terms of its geographic range.
The petitions propose two options for listing. The Northern Rocky Mountain DPS would include gray wolves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, a small portion of north-central Utah and the eastern one-third of Washington. The second option, a western U.S. DPS, would also include California, Colorado, Nevada and northern Arizona..
Wolves in the eastern third of Washington, roughly east of Highway 97, were removed from federal protection under the ESA in 2011, after they were deemed significantly recovered. Wolves in the western two-thirds of the state, which includes the Methow Valley, remained on the endangered list prior to last year’s delisting.
The Methow Valley is home to three known wolf packs, including 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. 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.
No emergency protection
Federal law requires FWS to “use the best available science” to conduct a status assessment and issue a finding within a year of the petition filing. The first petition was filed on May 26.
Petitioners had asked that FWS immediately restore protections to gray wolves on an emergency basis, but that request was not granted and wolves will continue to be hunted in the meantime, according to conservationists.
“I’m hopeful that wolves will eventually get the protection they deserve. The Fish and Wildlife Service should have stopped the wolf-killing now,” said Andrea Zaccardi, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that petitioned FWS.
“Anti-wolf policies in Idaho and Montana could wipe out wolves and erase decades of wolf recovery. We’re glad that federal officials have started a review, but wolves are under the gun now so they need protection right away,” Zaccardi said.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, criticized the decision to review federal protections for gray wolves. “Through partnerships between state, local communities, tribes, private landowners, and the federal government, we have worked to restore gray wolf species throughout the western United State and celebrated their recovery by removing them from the endangered species list.”
Newhouse noted in August that the Biden administration said it would stick by the Trump administration’s decision to delist wolves and allow states to take over management of the species.
Some federal wildlife officials, however, have expressed concern over aggressive wolf hunting policies adopted in some states.
The new law passed by Idaho’s legislature would permit up to 90% of the state’s wolf population to be killed, according to information from the Center for Biological Diversity. It allows hunters and trappers to kill an unlimited number of wolves and permits trapping year-round on private lands across the state. People can also chase wolves with hounds, and pursue and target them with all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles.
Montana’s new law permits up to 85% of the state’s wolves to be killed. They permit use of strangulation snares, night hunting and bait to hunt and trap wolves, according to Center for Biological Diversity. Hunters and trappers can kill up to 10 wolves each and can be reimbursed for their expenses through a new bounty program. The law eliminates quotas that limited killing of wolves outside Yellowstone National Park that were intended to limit killing of the park’s wolves.
Conservation groups that petitioned for the gray wolf protections include Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Humane Society of the United States, Western Watershed Project, WildEarth Guardians, and Alliance for the Wild Rockies.
Members of the public can comment by going to www.regulations.gov and using docket number: FWS-HQ-ES-2021-0106.