A gray wolf. (Photo by Tracy Brooks | courtesy of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service).
More than a dozen conservation and wildlife protection groups sent notice to the federal government Wednesday of their intent to sue over last week’s decision not to give wolves in the West protections under the Endangered Species Act.
The move is not unexpected, as the groups had signaled they would do so last Friday when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its draft decision, saying that wolves in the Western U.S. are a distinct population segment but they are not at imminent risk of extinction and should not be given protections at this time. That finding was published in the Federal Register on Wednesday.
The decision stemmed from a study the USFWS completed after years of petitions and a lawsuit by the same groups, who believe that some of the states that have management control over wolves since their delisting in 2011 – including Montana, Idaho and Wyoming – are allowing people to kill or trap too many of the wolves.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte told the Daily Montanan in a statement last week he supported USFWS keeping wolves’ listing 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,” he said in a statement.
But two separate groups of conservation and wildlife protection organizations sent letters to the USFWS director and U.S. Interior Secretary Wednesday providing their 60-day notice of intent to sue over the decision, which they say disregarded risks to the wolves in the West and other published scientific findings.
One group, led by the Western Environmental Law Center, said the USFWS finding didn’t take into account two 2023 studies – one which found wolves in the northern Rockies were losing their genetic variability, and another that questioned the model Montana uses to estimate wolf populations, arguing the population estimates are much higher than the true population.
“The Service’s finding seems to give the green light for states hostile to wolves to follow suit with Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming’s aggressive killing regimes if they are eventually delisted and transferred to state management West wide,” said Kelly Nokes, one of the Western Environmental Law Center attorneys representing the groups.
That group and another which sent notice of their intent to sue, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, also say that interconnectivity between northern Rocky Mountain and West Coast wolves is key to expand the wolf population back to its original range across the West, and that what they say are lax regulations in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming threaten the population as a whole.
“Unlike the Fish and Wildlife Service, we refuse to sanction the annual slaughter of hundreds of wolves,” said Andrea Zaccardi, the carnivore conservation legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “Allowing unlimited wolf killing sabotages decades of recovery efforts in the northern Rockies, as well as those in neighboring West Coast and southern Rockies states.”
The USFWS analysis found that even under the most extreme hunting, trapping and disease scenarios, the wolf population in the West would stay above 739 wolves, with an upper bound for the least extreme scenario of around 2,600 wolves. There were an estimated 2,800 living in seven states at the end of 2022, the analysis said.
“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 in its announcement of the findings.
The two groups told the federal agencies they will sue over the decision in 60 days if USFWS does not change the determination for wolves in the West.
As of Monday afternoon, 246 wolves had been hunted or trapped so far this season in Montana out of a total quota of 313, reduced from last year’s 450. Hunting and trapping will close a half hour after sunset Wednesday in Region 4 because the quota was met earlier this week.
Wolf trapping season will also come to an end in Montana on Feb. 15 because the only regions with any tags left are in Regions 1, 2 and 3, where trapping season must end by the 15th because of a federal court order limiting the season. General hunting season runs through March 15.
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