Court argues validity of managing distinct wolf populations

By Jennifer Becar

©Eric Kilby

The long history of legal discussion surrounding wolf management continued on Oct. 18, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit met to discuss the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of a distinct population segment (DPS) of gray wolves (Canis lupus) in the Great Lakes region – and the apparently simultaneous removal of that DPS from the Endangered Species Act.

In 2011, the USFWS published a final rule announcing the agency’s decision to delist the Great Lakes Region distinct population segment (GLR DPS) of gray wolves from the ESA. This rule was challenged by the Humane Society of the United States and other groups concerned about what may happen to the wolves if they were delisted. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled against USFWS’s decision in 2014, resulting in an appeal that cumulated in the Oct. 18 court hearing.

This case investigates several elements surrounding the management and conservation of gray wolves near the Great Lakes and nationwide, and has potential implications for management of other listed species. The appeals court addressed the legality of USFWS’s apparently simultaneous designation and delisting of the GLR DPS. Those challenging the 2011 delisting rule claim that it is contrary to the intent of the ESA to simultaneously create and delist a DPS. USFWS claims the GLR DPS existed before the 2011 delisting rule, and that the rule only served to redefine the boundaries of that DPS; this statement was ruled invalid in court.

The courts also questioned if delisting the GLR DPS would negatively impact the conservation of gray wolves elsewhere in the country. Those opposed to the delisting rule state that USFWS should consider numbers of gray wolves nationwide, rather than within distinct, isolated populations, in order to better assess the success or failure of conservation efforts. However, USFWS attorneys in the appeals court argued that the GLR DPS is “markedly separate” from gray wolf populations in other parts of the country, and that removing that DPS from the ESA will not reduce the likelihood of recovery for gray wolves in other areas.

Finally, the court considered how this case could negatively impact collaborative management efforts between the state and federal government. Michigan and Wisconsin expressed concerns over the district court’s decision to vacate the 2011 delisting rule, arguing that keeping the gray wolf on the ESA undermined the intensive effort taken in those states to recover the species – under the expectation that, upon recovery, gray wolves would be delisted and their management would once again be a state responsibility.

Gray wolves were originally listed under the ESA in 1974. Currently, gray wolves are listed as endangered throughout most of the United States. The gray wolf is listed as threatened in Minnesota, and as an experimental population in Wyoming. The species has been delisted due to recovery in the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS, which includes Montana, Idaho, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon and north-central Utah.

Read TWS’ fact sheet on Gray Wolf Populations in the Conterminous United States, and position statement on Wolf Restoration and Management in the Contiguous United States.

Becar_Headshot Jennifer Becar is a policy intern at The Wildlife Society as part of the Government Affairs & Partnership program.

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