Fish and Wildlife Service declines to give Northern Rockies wolves ESA protections

Conservation groups say legal challenge is likely

By: - February 2, 2024 4:08 pm

A Yellowstone wolf (Courtesy NPS/Jacob W. Frank)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Friday it will develop the first National Recovery Plan for gray wolves in the Lower 48 but declined to make any changes to their listing status under the Endangered Species Act, meaning Montana will continue to manage wolf populations here.

For several years, a host of conservation groups opposed to state-managed wolf hunting and trapping, including several from Montana, have petitioned the USFWS to either list gray wolves as a threatened species in the states where they are managed by state governments, or to create an expanded Western Distinct Population Segment for gray wolves with added protections.

Those petitions led to a USFWS review of whether new listing actions should be taken, but after the decision was released Friday, several of those same groups are threatening new litigation.

“How much worse must so-called wolf ‘management’ policies be in the Northern Rocky Mountain states in order for the federal government to take action?” Lizzy Pennock, the carnivore coexistence attorney at WildEarth Guardians, said in a statement.

Under the Trump administration in 2020, the USFWS had decided to delist gray wolves in the states outside of the northern Rockies where they had been protected by the Endangered Species Act. But a federal judge in California reversed that decision in February 2022, which led the service to publish a rule in November to comply with the order.

Last March, as part of a federal settlement agreement with some of the conservation groups, the USFWS committed to deciding by this February whether to list wolves as threatened or endangered in either a Northern Rockies or Western distinct population segment.

The USFWS reported Friday its decision that there is a Western distinct population segment that is vital in connecting Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest to gray wolves in Canada, but that it is not in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.

“Our analysis of our model projections indicates that there is no risk of quasi-extinction in the next 100 years under any of our future scenarios,” the agency wrote in its decision, which will be published in the Federal Register in coming days.

Thus, the agency found, adding those protections is not currently warranted, so gray wolves will remain under state management in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and the eastern thirds of Oregon and Washington, as they have been since 2011. They are listed as a threatened species in Minnesota and as endangered in the other 44 states.

“The Service conducted a comprehensive analysis using robust modeling that incorporated the best available data from federal, state and Tribal sources, academic institutions and the public. The model assessed various threats, including human-caused mortality, existing regulatory mechanisms, and disease,” the USFWS said in a release.

The decision and species status assessment found good habitat and abundant prey for wolves throughout the West, an increasing abundance of wolves despite hunting and trapping in some states, about 2,800 wolves living in seven states at the end of 2022, and resiliency even to hunting and disease.

The agency found through modeling that even if hunting and trapping quotas remain high in Montana and Idaho, the median wolf population in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming in 100 years would range between 935 and 2,161. In the most extreme harvest and disease scenario, the lowest population the model provided was 739 wolves, while in the least extreme scenario, it said there could be up to 2,586 wolves.

“Wolves currently have the ability to and will retain the ability to adapt to changes in their environment given their retained distribution across a diversity of ecoregions (even with projected future population declines in Idaho and Montana), their generalist life history, and their genetic diversity,” the agency wrote.

But the agency noted that five out of its six rules on gray wolf ESA status have been overturned by courts, in part due to its failures to consider how delisting groups of wolves affects the entire population.

In response, the agency said it would develop the first nationwide gray wolf recovery plan by December 2025, which it said will “provide a vision for species recovery that is connected to site-specific actions for reducing threats and conserving listed species and their ecosystems.”

But the same conservation groups who petitioned the agency for a new review of wolf protections in the northern Rockies are unhappy with the decision. A spokesperson for the Western Environmental Law Center said the group plans to file a notice of intent to sue over the decision on Monday.

“Wolves aren’t a political football, they are a native wildlife species key to balancing ecosystem health,” Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement. “It is obvious that wolves don’t have adequate regulatory mechanisms to protect them in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, where they are being targeted for extermination by governments. The Biden administration had the opportunity to follow the science and the law and ensure real recovery for the species. This is beyond disappointing.”

The groups have long maintained that Montana, Wyoming and Idaho allowing people to hunt and trap the animals, in some cases using bait, will harm long-term population recovery, while those states have said they need to keep wolf populations under control to reduce livestock and elk depredation.

The state is in the midst of updating its wolf management plan for the first time in 20 years, and the draft plan seeks to keep a minimum of 450 wolves in Montana, where there are currently an estimated 1,000 to 1,200, which the conservation groups have said is a hint that Montana would like to keep hunting and trapping in place long term.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission in December faced criticism from the groups about approving new administrative rules amendments that removed reference to the Montana Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan that is currently being updated.

FWP admitted to violating the public right to know in earlier meetings and entered into a consent decree with one of the groups, Wolves of the Rockies, and the commission was sued over alleged public notice violations.

And several of the groups successfully went to federal court to force Montana to change its wolf trapping season dates in most of the state, limiting the seasons in those areas to Jan. 1 to Feb. 15 over the threat to grizzly bears, which are listed under the ESA.

A decision is also likely imminent from the USFWS as to whether grizzly bears should be delisted in two ecosystems in Montana – something the Republican supermajority and Gianforte administration has been pushing for in order to be able to put those animals under state management as well.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a statement he appreciated USFWS keeping gray wolves’ ESA status unchanged.

“In Montana, we have demonstrated our ability to appropriately conserve the gray wolf using a science-based approach and we look forward to continuing to do so in the years to come,” Gianforte said in a statement from the Governor’s Office.

For the wolf hunting and trapping season, the wolf quotas have already been met in Wildlife Management Unit 313 and Regions 5, 6, and 7 for the year. The Fish and Wildlife Commission earlier this week declined to make changes to the season in Region 3, where 42 wolves have been killed as of Friday out of a quota of 52. Across the state, 230 wolves had been killed as of Friday out of a quota of 313, which was reduced from last year’s quota of 450.

But maintaining hunting and trapping seasons in which hundreds of wolves are killed each year in Montana and its neighboring states is not sustainable, the conservation groups said Friday.

“FWS is completely missing how disgraceful anti-carnivore fervor is reversing conservation gains in this region,” said Nick Gevock, the Sierra Club’s Northern Rockies field organizer. “We need FWS to do better and Montana, Idaho and Wyoming need to get into the 21st Century and work to conserve wolves in an ethical, science-based manner.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.