Lawsuit challenges gray wolf delisting

Several advocacy groups filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, challenging the agency’s decision to remove the gray wolf (Canis lupus) from the list of protected species under the Endangered Species Act.

Gray wolves in the contiguous U.S. were removed from the ESA list in early January. When the delisting plan was made final, The Wildlife Society issued a statement highlighting the role that wildlife professionals have had in restoring wolf populations over the past several decades and encouraging state-led management that recognizes stakeholder values and advances conservation of the species.

The lawsuit, filed earlier this month by Earthjustice on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club, the National Parks Conservation Association, Oregon Wild and the Humane Society of the United States, alleges that the agency did not rely on the best available science in delisting the wolf.

According to the plaintiffs, the USFWS erred in their analysis of the wolf’s recovery by ignoring available historical wolf habitat, selectively combining wolf populations for purposes of their analysis, and disregarding the newer wolf populations in northeastern and western states as unnecessary to the survival and recovery of wolves in the Midwest.

First listed under the ESA in the 1970’s, gray wolf populations have increased throughout the lower 48 states in recent decades. According to the USFWS, there are now more than 6,000 gray wolves across the contiguous U.S., mostly in two large, genetically diverse, stable to growing populations — one in the Northern Rocky Mountains and another in the Western Great Lakes. The wolf population in the Great Lakes area of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin has grown to about 4,500 individuals. The Northern Rockies population includes more than 1,500 wolves across Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, Utah and California, with some evidence of wolves moving into Colorado. The Colorado state wildlife agency is moving forward with plans to reintroduce gray wolves to the state, as a results of an initiative approved by voters in the state last November.

During the last 20 years, the USFWS attempted several times to delist various populations of gray wolves, and has been challenged repeatedly in court, with some rulings supporting delisting and some reversing the agency’s decisions. The gray wolf’s listing status has also been the subject of legislation during several recent Congresses. In 2011, a rider attached to budget legislation removed wolves in the Northern Rockies from ESA protections. Last week, a bill was introduced that would “exclude the gray wolf from the authority” of the ESA.

The delisting decision and associated lawsuit do not affect Mexican wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) or red wolves (Canis rufus), both of which remain endangered under the ESA.

Read TWS’ Position Statements on The U.S. Endangered Species Act and Wolf Restoration and Management in the Contiguous United States

Header Image: A new lawsuit challenges the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s recent decision to remove gray wolves from the list of threatened and endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. Credit: MacNeil Lyons/NPS