(EnviroNews Nature) — Bloomington, Minnesota — In 1978, the gray wolf was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in every state in the contiguous U.S. except Minnesota, where it was listed as threatened. Since then, farmers, ranchers, Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) and Administrations from Clinton and Bush to Obama and Trump have tried to oust the iconic animal from the endangered list. On Oct. 29, 2020, the Trump Administration succeeded in that aim and stripped the gray wolf (Canis lupus) from the endangered species list in the lower 48 states, in what wildlife advocates are calling a “last-ditch ploy for Midwest votes.” Conservation groups have already mobilized to challenge the move, which comes a scant five days before the election.
Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary David Bernhardt made the announcement at the Minnesota Valley River National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington, Minnesota, where he hailed the decision as a conservation success story.
“After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery. Today’s announcement simply reflects the determination that this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law,” Bernhardt added in a press release.
Conservations groups strongly disagree. Nevertheless, management of the apex predator will now be handed over to the states and tribal governments 60 days after publication in the Federal Register. The rule excludes the Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), a subspecies of gray wolf.
“The battle over wolf recovery is, unfortunately, both politically charged and partisan,” said Lindsay Larris, Wildlife Program Director with WildEarth Guardians (Guardians), in a press release. “For decades, ranchers have demonized wolves because they are an impediment to carefree, inexpensive grazing of private livestock on public lands. Finalizing delisting of wolves a few days before an election is a gift to the ranching and agricultural interests, plain and simple.”
Farmers, ranchers, and livestock-dependent business applauded the move citing the amount of damage and economic loss due to wolf depredation.
“With this ruling, management of the gray wolf is now in the hands of state officials who can best manage the population to benefit beef and livestock producers, as well as gray wolf habitat in our state,” said Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association President Mike Landuyt in a press release.
Gray wolves are protected by state laws in California and Washington, but other states, including Oregon, Utah, Montana, and Wyoming have continued to allow hunting and killing of the iconic animal through a loophole created by Congress. In Idaho alone from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020, 570 wolves, including young pups, were killed in a 12-month span according to Idaho Press.
“This is yet another example of the Trump Administration ignoring science,” Larris continued. “From climate change denial, to their gross mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, to rollbacks of environmental safeguards protecting clean air and water, this administration has proven time and time again that they’re only in it for themselves, even if it means ignoring and denying the facts.”
There are between 5,000 and 6,000 wolves in the contiguous United States, even though they occupy less than 10 percent of their historical range according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
An alliance of legendary environmental groups have already announced they will be suing Uncle Sam over the move. The coalition includes Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Cascadia Wildlands, Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, The Lands Council, Kettle Range Conservation Group, Klamath Forest Alliance, Wildlands Network, and Rocky Mountain Wild. These plaintiffs will be represented in court by the Western Environmental Law Center. In a press release, the Center for Biological Diversity announced it will file a separate lawsuit as well.
DELISTING THE WOLF: A STRING OF FAILURES, FLOPS AND DO-OVERS
Sen. Barrasso has been at the forefront in numerous attempts to get the wolf delisted in his home state of Wyoming and several other places. He has sponsored no fewer than four bills aiming to leave the wild canine unprotected: S. 2281 in 2015, S. 659 section 14, which included other states and Wyoming, and section 15, which only included Wyoming, S. 164 in 2017, and S. 1514 in 2017.
In 1982, Congress proposed to introduce “experimental populations” declared “non-essential” and treated as threatened into Central Idaho and Yellowstone. The “non-essential” and “threatened” designations allowed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to establish “special rules” for the killing of the wolves, which the USFWS wouldn’t have been able to do if the wolves had been declared “essential.” Lawsuits challenged the reintroduction, and in 1992, Congress denied funding, through a rider to an appropriations bill, to release any wolves in Central Idaho or Yellowstone that year. It wasn’t until 1995 and 1996 that 66 gray wolves were relocated to those areas. In 2010, the wolf population for Yellowstone and Central Idaho was 1,651.
In 2003, the USFWS tried to reduce protections for gray wolves by creating “distinct population segments” (DPS). The agency’s plan was shut down by two court decisions that vacated the rule and said the plan violated the ESA. In 2007 and 2008, the USFWS gave it another go and tried to create two different DPSes. Again, the courts rejected the ploy with the District Court of Montana issuing an injunction against delisting the gray wolf and the District Court of the District of Columbia citing that the USFWS use of the DPS was contrary to its stated intent and that of the ESA.
In 2009, the USFWS created 74 Fed. Reg. 15123 which once again delisted the gray wolf in all of its range except in Wyoming, where a state plan was not in place to oversee the recovery of the wolf. The agency withdrew that effort after being sued.
In 2010, after Wyoming created a plan, the courts ordered the USFWS to review that plan to see if it was viable and would improve the management of the wolf in the state.
In 2011, Congress inserted section 1713 into the Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, 2011. This section did not mention the gray wolf by name; instead, it simply said the rule would be reissued and not subjected to judicial review:
Before the end of the 60-day period beginning on the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of the Interior shall reissue the final rule published on April 2, 2009 (74 Fed. Reg. 15123 et seq.) without regard to any other provision of statute or regulation that applies to issuance of such rule. Such reissuance (including this section) shall not be subject to judicial review and shall not abrogate or otherwise have any effect on the order and judgment issued by the United States District Court for the District of Wyoming in Case Numbers 09-CV-118J and 09-CV-138J on November 18, 2010.
This was the first time that Congress directed the USFWS to delist a species. The agency delisted the wolves in Montana, Idaho, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and north-central Utah. The wolves in other states kept their protected status as an endangered or threatened species. In 2012, the USFWS delisted the gray wolf in Wyoming, and in 2013, the agency proposed a rule to delist the animal in the rest of the United States.
In 2014, the USFWS was handed another loss in court when the United States District Court for the District of Columbia vacated the final rule at 76 FR 81666 delisting the gray wolf in the western Great Lakes. While the U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed with the reasons behind the ruling, it upheld the lower court’s vacatur because the agency failed to consider the impacts of partial delisting and the historical range loss. The 2012 Wyoming rule was also vacated by U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia but was reinstated in 2017 when the D.C. Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision.
In 2018, the 115th Congress attempted to strip the gray wolf’s ESA protection 15 times. It finally succeeded in passing H.R. 6784 in November, which would have delisted the animals and disallowed judicial interference. It was sent to the Senate and read twice but never passed.
As of June 2019, the gray wolf was delisted in the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS, listed as threatened in Minnesota and endangered in 44 other states and Mexico.
“Again and again, the courts have rejected premature removal of wolf protection,” said Collette Adkins, Carnivore Conservation Director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But instead of pursuing further wolf recovery, the Fish and Wildlife Service has just adopted the broadest, most destructive delisting rule yet.”
POLITICIANS, STATE AGENCIES AND HUNTERS ALL CHASING THE BIG BAD WOLF
The end result of successful delisting is that the states will manage their own wolf populations. In Wyoming, that means established hunting seasons between September and March with bag limits up to 10 depending on the hunting area. The state has agreed to maintain 10 breeding pairs and 100 wolves outside of Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone would provide an additional buffer to bring the total number of wolves statewide to 15 breeding pairs and 150 wolves. However, those wolves designated as “predatory” may be killed year-round and without a hunting permit or license. As of December 2019, Wyoming had 311 wolves with 22 breeding pairs, and people were responsible for 88 of 96 documented wolf deaths according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. In July 2020, the number of wolves had increased to about 343 with the USFWS, former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and former Wyoming Governor Matt Mead agreeing to a “shoot-on-sight” management program for the state’s wolves, as reported by EnviroNews in March 2017.
In 2014, Idaho sold tickets for a gray wolf “killing derby” but was inconvenienced when environmental groups sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for permitting such an activity on federal lands. The BLM denied the use of 3.1 million acres of land, but the derby went on when the U.S. Forest Service refused to revoke its permits. Starting Jan. 2, 2015, hunters were competing to kill the most wolves. The winner would receive $1,000 from the State of Idaho’s coffers. Hunters would also be able to sell their pelts on-site. Fewer than 100 hunters participated, and no wolves were killed during the derby thanks to an earthquake in the area that spooked the animals.
The Foundation for Wildlife Management, a non-profit in Idaho, has offered a bounty for wolves since 2012. In 2019, the state decided to help fund the non-profit in return for wolf kills in elk recovery areas. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission gave the group $23,065.
In 2014, Montana opened a six-month-long gray wolf hunting season after one wolf was killed in an early season bow-hunt. At the end of the year, the state reported the wolf population had declined by 12 percent. Hunters and trappers had killed 206 wolves during the winter harvest according to the Spokesman-Review. There are an estimated 830 wolves in Montana in 2019.
Oregon’s plan for gray wolf management allows for killing any wolf that attacks livestock twice in a nine-month period. There were 158 wolves in Oregon at the end of 2019.
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