In 2005, in much of the lower 48 states and Mexico, the Gray Wolf had the highest level of protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Since it was an endangered species, it was illegal to kill or harm the wolf in any way. In addition, there were three non-essential experimental populations treated as threatened. A non-essential experimental population is one that is made up of wolves that were relocated from another area to create a new population segment. In certain areas of the country today, however, wolf populations have been “downlisted” (listed as threatened instead of endangered) or completely delisted (removed from the federal list of endangered species). This has created a legal and political battle that rages on today in the affected states.
The gray wolf was originally listed as endangered in 1978. While it once roamed freely among most of the lower 48 states, it was nearly wiped out by hunters during the twentieth century. In an effort to increase the small existing populations of gray wolves, in 1994, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) relocated gray wolves from Canada to Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. These “Distinct Population Segments” or “DPS” exist today and are treated as threatened. A “distinct population segment” is a population of individual animals that is separate and different from the rest of the species in some way.
In the last seventeen years since the reintroduction of wolves in the mid- and southwest, the number of wolves in those populations has grown substantially. In some areas, gray wolves have exceeded the minimum criteria set forth by the FWS in its gray wolf recovery plan. As a result, in 2007 and 2008, the FWS created and simultaneously removed some protections from the Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment (DPS) and the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS. The Western Great Lakes DPS includes wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, the Eastern half of North and South Dakota, Northern Iowa, Northern Illinois, and Northwest Ohio. The Northern Rocky Mountain DPS includes wolves in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon, and North Central Utah.
Several months after the initial creation of the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS, which required Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to implement state management plans, environmental groups challenged the government’s rule. Because of inconsistencies in the FWS’s decision to accept a Wyoming state wolf management plan it previously rejected, the environmental groups prevailed. The gray wolf was relisted as endangered until April 2009 when the FWS issued another Final Rule that once again delisted the gray wolf in the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS except in Wyoming, where it was listed as threatened. In its 2010 decision in Defenders of Wildlife v. Salazar, the court ordered that all wolves in this DPS be relisted as endangered. Most recently, Congress included a provision in its 2011 budget that once again delisted the wolf in Idaho and Montana and downlisted gray wolves in Wyoming to threatened.
Environmental groups challenged the 2007 delisting of the Western Great lakes DPS and prevailed. In December 2008, the gray wolf was relisted as threatened in Minnesota and endangered in the rest of the DPS. In April 2009, the FWS once again delisted the Western Great Lakes DPS. This Rule remained in effect for five months, at which time the Court restored gray wolf protections. Most recently, in May 2011, the FWS announced a proposal to delist the Western Great Lakes DPS of the gray wolf which is still pending today. The FWS expects to be ready to issue its Final Rule in December 2011.
Critics contend that there are many inconsistencies in the FWS’s decisions regarding the gray wolf and the ESA. Due to conflicting interests between farmers, certain states, environmental groups, and the FWS, the gray wolf’s status on the ESA is in a state of flux. Even though in certain areas the number of wolves has exceeded the numerical criteria set forth in its recovery plan, there remains an unresolved issue as to the threat humans continue to pose on the gray wolf’s survival. As a result, it seems the political and legal battle over how to protect the gray wolf will not be ending anytime soon.