BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Wildlife advocates are asking a federal court to overturn a U.S. government decision that stripped Endangered Species Act protections for wolves across most of the nation.
Two coalitions of advocacy groups filed lawsuits Thursday in U.S. District Court in Northern California seeking to restore protections for the predators.
The Trump administration announced in October that wolves were considered recovered from near-extinction across most of the U.S.
But critics of the move say continued protections are needed so fledgling wolf populations in Colorado and on the West Coast can continue to expand.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said gray wolves have exceeded goals for recovery.
News release from the Western Environmental Law Center:
Western wolf coalition challenges nationwide wolf delisting
Jan 14, 2021 |
Today, a coalition of Western wolf advocates challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to prematurely strip wolves of federal protections in the contiguous 48 states, in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
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 (with only 20 outside of eastern Washington), 158 in Oregon (with only 16 outside of northeastern Oregon), and a scant 15 exist in California. Nevada, Utah, and Colorado have had a few wolf sightings over the past three years, but wolves remain functionally absent from their historical habitat in these states.
“Wolves are a keystone species whose presence on landscapes regulates animal populations and improves ecosystem health – something the Service has acknowledged for at least 44 years,” said Kelly Nokes, Western Environmental Law Center attorney. “Allowing people to kill wolves in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana has already stunted recovery in those states. Applying this same death sentence to wolves throughout the contiguous U.S. would nationalize these negative effects, with potentially catastrophic ripple effects on ecosystems where wolves have yet to fully recover.”
In delisting wolves, the Service ignored the science showing they are not recovered in the West. The Service concluded that because in its belief there are sufficient wolves in the Great Lakes states, it does not matter that wolves in the West are not yet recovered. The Endangered Species Act demands more, including restoring the species in the ample suitable habitats afforded by the wild public lands throughout the West. Indeed, wolves are listed as endangered under state laws in Washington and California, and wolves only occupy a small portion of available, suitable habitat in Oregon. Likewise, wolves have only just begun to recolonize their historical, wild, public lands habitat in much of the West, including in Colorado and the southern Rockies.
“From a scientific standpoint, wolves are nowhere near being recovered in the western United States,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director with Western Watersheds Project. “The federal government has the obligation to keep wolves protected until robust and secure populations are in place throughout the West, and we intend to ensure that wolves get the legal defense they need against premature delisting.”
“We have seen what happens when ‘management’ of wolves is returned to hostile state wildlife agencies disinterested in maintaining robust, stable, and genetically diverse wolf populations,” said Lindsay Larris, Wildlife Program director at WildEarth Guardians. “Idaho, which allows an individual to kill up to 30 wolves annually, saw the slaughter of nearly 600 wolves and wolf pups in a recent 12-month period and now other states are gearing up to allow wolf hunting and trapping this fall. Returning this type of unscientific and barbaric ‘management’ to states at this early juncture would spell disaster for true gray wolf recovery, plain and simple.”
The conservation groups have long been active on wolf recovery issues in the American West, including working with Western states to develop science-based wolf management plans, mounting cases to rein in rogue federal government wolf-killing programs, promoting recovery efforts in the Southwest for critically imperiled Mexican gray wolves, and working with local governments and landowners to deploy non-lethal tools that prevent wolf-livestock conflicts.
“With only a handful of wolves in California, western Oregon, and western Washington, wolf recovery is still precarious on the west coast,” said John Mellgren, Western Environmental Law Center general counsel. “A rush to delist the species across the entire country runs counter to the Service’s own peer review, and tells West Coast states that wolf recovery in their part of the country does not matter. We look forward to presenting the science to a federal court.”
While the Trump administration may believe it can disregard science to promote purely political listing decisions, the law does not support such a stance. The best available science says gray wolves are not recovered, and the coalition looks forward to having a court hear their science-based arguments for why wolves still need of Endangered Species Act protections to truly recover across the species range.
“In just the last year, we lost an icon to wolf recovery when OR-7 passed away. He and his mate represent the first generation of wolves in western Oregon in nearly a century,” said Joseph Vaile with the conservation group Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center based in southwest Oregon. “Delisting is clearly premature and obviously politically driven. It’s a last-ditch effort by the Trump administration to strip away protections for recovering wildlife.”
“Removing Endangered Species Act protections for any species should be based science, not politics, and the science tells us wolves are not there yet,” said Chris Bachman, Wildlife Program director at The Lands Council. “The gray wolf remains functionally extinct in 85% of its historic range, with 70% of suitable habitat remaining unoccupied across the lower 48 states. Legal protections must remain in place for the gray wolf to allow wider dispersal across a significant portion of its range.”
“Wolves were nearly exterminated from the lower 48. We should be celebrating the species’ ongoing recovery and the incredible success stories of the Endangered Species Act,” said Nick Cady with Cascadia Wildlands. “Instead, wolves have become another victim of the polarization and political game-playing in Washington D.C., and conservation groups are left battling to stem rising calls for active eradication of the species. Conservation of native species formerly enjoyed widespread bipartisan support. The actions of this administration toward wildlife are shameful.”
“The finger on the trigger of wolf slaughter is driven by anti-government fanatics who foment fear, lies and mistrust. The Endangered Species Act makes such hostility to wild nature more difficult, more closely watched,” said Timothy Coleman, director of Kettle Range Conservation Group and former member of the state Wolf Advisory Group. “Eighty-five percent of wolves we know were killed in Washington were in the Kettle River Range where gray wolf was delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2009, though it remained state listed endangered. Had it remained Endangered Species Act-listed, entire wolf families would not have been repeatedly killed in northeast Washington. Regionally, this has meant wolves are not dispersing to Mount Rainier and Olympia National Park, or other public lands in the Pacific Northwest.”
“California’s wolves are just starting to return home,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director at the Environmental Protection Information Center. “A politically driven delisting puts wolf recovery in jeopardy by stripping protections at the moment they are needed most.”
“We must learn to coexist with gray wolves. These highly intelligent and social animals play a key role in balancing entire ecosystems,” said Kimberly Baker of the Klamath Forest Alliance. “Federal protection is paramount to safeguarding this nation’s rightful heritage.”
The coalition of western wildlife advocates launching this legal challenge includes WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Cascadia Wildlands, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), The Lands Council, Wildlands Network, Klamath Forest Alliance, and Kettle Range Conservation Group, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center. A separate lawsuit is planned by Earthjustice representing national wildlife groups.
News release from the Center for Biological Diversity:
Lawsuit Challenges Trump Administration Over Gray Wolf Delisting
SAN FRANCISCO— Six environmental groups filed a lawsuit today against the Trump administration’s rule that removed Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the lower-48 states (except for a small population of Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made its decision despite the science that concludes wolves are still functionally extinct in the vast majority of their former range across the continental United States.
Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, Oregon Wild and the Humane Society of the United States.
“This is no ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment for wolf recovery,” said Kristen Boyles, an Earthjustice attorney. “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.”
“The delisting we've challenged today represents the latest chapter in the sad saga of the Fish and Wildlife Service's failure to do its duty to protect and ensure the recovery of wolves under the Endangered Species Act,” said Nicholas Arrivo, managing attorney for the Humane Society of the United States. “We're confident that the court will strike down this illegal decision and restore the federal protections needed to give America's wolves a genuine opportunity to recover.”
“Stripping protections from gray wolves in the lower 48 — before they have fully recovered and in the middle of a wildlife extinction crisis— was based on politics, not science,” said Bonnie Rice, endangered species campaign representative at the Sierra Club. “Gray wolves are still missing from vast areas of the country. Without endangered species protections, wolves just starting to return to places like California and the Pacific Northwest will be extremely vulnerable. Wolves are critical to maintaining the balance of natural systems and we are committed to fighting for their full recovery.”
“We hope this lawsuit finally sets the wolf on a path to true recovery,” said Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Restoring federal protection would allow further recovery in places like California, which is home now to just a single pack of wolves. Without federal protection the future of gray wolves rests in the hands of state governments, many of which, like Utah and South Dakota, are hostile to wolf recovery.”
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s decision to remove Endangered Species Act protection from gray wolves in the lower 48 states threatens populations just beginning to make a comeback in national parks,” said Bart Melton, wildlife program director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “After decades of absence, gray wolves are starting to re-inhabit park landscapes in Oregon, Washington, California and Colorado. However, these populations are far from recovered. Rather than working alongside communities to support the return of wolves, the administration unlawfully said, ‘good enough’ and removed ESA protections. We are hopeful the court will reinstate these protections.”
“It is far too early to declare wolves recovered and to strip protections from them in the Western two-thirds of Oregon,” said Danielle Moser, wildlife program coordinator for Oregon Wild. “Removing wolves from the endangered species list would turn their management entirely over to Oregon’s embattled Department of Fish and Wildlife, which continues to push for hunting and trapping of the state’s already fragile wolf population.”
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared a premature victory with its reckless decision to strip gray wolves of federal ESA protections,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO with Defenders of Wildlife. “This decision, if it stands, will short circuit gray wolf recovery, limit the range available to wolf packs, and subject wolves to fragmented state laws, some with hostile anti-wolf policies. Defenders is challenging this decision in court and pushing the agency to reinstate needed legal protections.”
Gray wolf recovery in the United States should be an American conservation success story. Once found nationwide, gray wolves were hunted, trapped, and poisoned for decades; by 1967 there were fewer than 1,000 wolves in one isolated part of the upper Midwest.
The Fish and Wildlife Service protected gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act in 1978. Today there are recovering wolf populations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho; wolves have begun to inhabit Washington, Oregon and California; and unclaimed wolf habitat remains in states like Maine, Colorado and Utah.
Last year 1.8 million Americans submitted comments opposing this delisting. Additionally, 86 members of Congress (in both the House and Senate), 100 scientists, 230 businesses and 367 veterinary professionals all submitted letters opposing the wolf delisting plan. Even the scientific peer reviews commissioned by the Fish and Wildlife Service itself found that the agency’s proposal ignored science and appeared to come to a predetermined conclusion, with inadequate scientific support.