Recently, a long battle to protect wolves came to an end — with wolves as the winners, at least temporarily.
Despite the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)’s repeated attempts to reduce federal protections for gray wolves throughout the country, API and other wildlife advocates have won significant victories in the courts to ensure continued protections for the species.
In 2003, API joined Defenders of Wildlife and 15 other plaintiffs in challenging the FWS’s rule that reclassified wolves from “endangered” status to “threatened” in the lower 48 states.
The reclassification rule was considered the first step in the eventual elimination of all federal protections for gray wolves in the lower 48 states. It would have established three large wolf recovery regions in the U.S. — Eastern, Western, and Southwestern — and reclassified the wolf from “endangered” to “threatened” in major portions of the Eastern and Western regions.
A significant problem with the FWS scheme was that these regions were designed in such a way to enable the FWS to declare wolves recovered in an entire region on the basis of wolf populations in a relatively small portion of a region. Thus, gray wolves in the Eastern region, which encompassed the Great Lakes area as well as New England, could be declared recovered on the basis of wolf populations in the Great Lakes area alone.
Our lawsuit argued that it was premature to remove federal protections for gray wolves and that the FWS’s actions subverted the intent of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) to restore listed species to a significant portion of their historic range. In January 2005, a U.S. District Court ruled in our favor and overturned the 2003 FWS rule, scoring a major victory for wolves.
Forced to File Suit
While initial victories for wolves are encouraging, the battle to protect wolves is far from over. The FWS seems determined to chip away at endangered species protections and sidestep laws such as the ESA.
In August 2005, API, Defenders of Wildlife, and 10 other co-plaintiffs were forced to file another lawsuit to stop the FWS from issuing depredation permits to Michigan and Wisconsin, thereby allowing them to kill wolves who had threatened or attacked livestock and pets. We argued that the FWS violated federal law, including the Endangered Species Act, by issuing lethal control permits without giving the public an opportunity to comment. The permits authorized state officials to kill up to 54 gray wolves annually: 20 in Michigan and 34 in Wisconsin in 2005.
The way the permit system works is that when a rancher loses livestock to a wolf, he contacts the Department of Natural Resources (DNR. The DNR obtains a kill permit from the FWS, and then the DNR sets out a trap to kill the wolf. No changes are required on the part of ranchers to improve their animal husbandry techniques and ensure that their livestock are protected in the future. And because of the inherent non-selective nature of leghold traps and snares, there is no guarantee that the “problem” wolf is actually killed.
API and other animal and conservation groups have pointed out these issues in comments submitted to the FWS and state wildlife agencies. Our suit demanded that the agency withdraw the permits and go through the proper legal procedure for considering them. We will keep our supporters apprised of developments in the case as the suit progresses.
Wolf “Management” in Idaho
Another suit may be in the works over a proposed wolf “management” plan in Idaho.
In January 2006, the FWS signed a Memorandum of Agreement with Idaho that gives complete control over the management of wolves to the state. If this plan is implemented, it could be a major setback for wolf recovery.
Idaho’s management plan could permit the number of wolves in the state to be reduced from the current 42 pairs to 10 pairs — the minimum threshold that the FWS established for “recovery.” As a result, three-quarters of the state’s wolf population could be eliminated. The Idaho legislature has proven itself to be no friend to the wolf and has twice adopted resolutions that call for the complete eradication of wolves from the state!
Recognizing what a dire threat this agreement could be, API joined Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and five other organizations in sending a letter of intent to sue to former Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton. We argued that by signing this agreement with Idaho, the FWS was in violation of several federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
At press time, we had yet to receive a response from the FWS, but litigation may be necessary to stop implementation of this deadly plan.
Wolves are also in jeopardy in the Midwest, where the Bush Administration has put them on the fast-track for delisting from the Endangered Species Act. Delisting would remove prohibitions on certain activities such as logging in areas designated as critical habitat for wolves.
In March 2006, the FWS once again proposed to remove gray wolves from the federal list of endangered and threatened species and lift all federal protections for wolves inhabiting the newly-established “Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment.” This zone encompasses Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, as well as parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The FWS argues that wolves have sufficiently recovered in this area to warrant removal of federal protections. If delisted, management of wolves would be transferred to the states and tribes.
API and many other groups argue that the estimated 4,000 wolves inhabiting these states are insufficient to warrant removal of federal protections and that wolves are being fragmented into discrete populations, which inhibits genetic diversity and reduces the likelihood of survival. We also believe that the state management plans fail to ensure long-term wolf recovery and establish overly-broad allowances for killing wolves without requiring ranchers to improve their husbandry methods to better protect their livestock.
For example, in Wisconsin, where the FWS estimates that 425 wolves exist today, the state management plan would set a population goal of 350. If the population exceeds that number — as it does now — the state would allow for a proactive depredation control program and the consideration of trophy hunting and trapping as “management” tools. And Minnesota’s state management plan would allow for wolves to be killed “to protect domestic animals even if attacks or threatening behavior have not occurred” and a de facto bounty on wolves by paying “certified gray wolf predator controllers” $150 for each wolf killed. After five years, the management plan would allow for the commissioner to “prescribe open seasons” on wolves, thereby legalizing trophy hunting and fur trapping — the very same activities that pushed wolves to the brink of extinction!
API and many other animal and conservation groups contend that wolves have not sufficiently recovered to warrant delisting across their range. Moreover, wolves continue to struggle to survive as their habitat dwindles and they face threats from humans such as poaching, incidental trapping, and poisoning.
Instead of focusing limited resources on increasing educational outreach efforts aimed at fostering coexistence and building tolerance for wolves, the FWS and some state wildlife agencies have helped to entrench the “big bad wolf” stereotype, pitting conservationists against ranchers. When the government seems intent on using a dangerous, anti-scientific approach to endangered species recovery, organizations may be forced to turn to the courts for a remedy.
Stay tuned for updates about how API is seeking justice for wolves and other imperiled animals.