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A gray wolf.

It didn’t take long for the ink to dry on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) ruling to delist gray wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) before two separate environmental coalitions filed their intent to sue for the restoration of the listing.

Six conservation groups represented by EarthJustice and separately eight conservation groups represented by Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) sent letters challenging the decision, which takes effect 60 days after the final rule was published in the Federal Register on Nov. 3.

“Given that gray wolves in the lower 48 states occupy a fraction of their historical and currently available habitat, the Fish and Wildlife Service determining they are successfully recovered does not pass the straight-face test,” said John Mellgren, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “We look forward to having a court hear our science-based arguments for why wolves are not recovered throughout the contiguous U.S. and need ESA protections to recover fully.”

Both groups argued USFWS did not use peer-reviewed science to show wolves have recovered in the West, and only considered the population in the Midwest when evaluating if the species has recovered. According to the coalitions, the USFWS ruling stated the wolf population in the West Coast and Northern Rocky Mountains are not a “distinct population segment.”

The coalitions also contended USFWS did not consider the species’ historical habitat, nor did they “provide for a sustainable wolf population after delisting.”

By letting the states govern the control of gray wolves, both groups are worried excessive hunting will occur in an effort to control the population and claimed “high levels of human-caused mortality is what drove the wolf extinct across most of the United States.”

Further, the rule fails to consider the immense loss of wolves “at the behest of livestock producers and fails to address the threats faced by the species due to the lack of nonlethal coexistence practices in key wolf habitats in the Pacific Northwest,” according to the letter by WELC. The groups cite examples such as in South Dakota, wherein the eastern part of the state they are considered “varmints” and can be shot; or in other states where they consider the species as furbearers or game animals and can be hunted.

“Wolves are a keystone species whose presence on landscapes regulates animal populations and improves ecosystem health–something the [USFWS] has acknowledged for at least 44 years,” said Kelly Nokes, an attorney at WELC. “Allowing people to kill wolves in Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana has already stunted recovery in those states. Applying this same death sentence to wolves throughout the contiguous U.S. would nationalize these negative effects, with potentially catastrophic ripple effects on ecosystems wherever wolves are found today.”

The gray wolf has been removed from the endangered species list in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. In Oregon, Washington and Utah, the states’ Fish and Wildlife Departments have set aside parts of the states as protected for the species. Under Colorado’s state ESA, killing a wolf could result in a fine of up to $100,000 and a penalty of up to a year in prison. Voters in Colorado recently approved a ballot initiative to reintroduce wolves west of the Continental Divide by 2023. California also protects wolves under its state ESA.

USFWS estimates the gray wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountains as of 2014, the latest survey, at 1,782 wolves. State surveys in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming estimate the combined population total of slightly above 2,100 wolves, the Oregon population at 158 wolves and Washington at 145 wolves as of April 2020.

The agency also removed protection from gray wolves in the Great Lakes region in 2011, allowing hunting and trapping seasons in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, but the courts restored protection in 2014.

USFWS has 60 days to respond to the letters sent by both coalitions and address their issues. “We would, however, prefer to avoid litigation. As such, we welcome the opportunity to meet with the USFWS to discuss these concerns and attempt to come to a meaningful resolution of these issues to avoid seeking relief from a court after costly and time-consuming litigation,” the letter from WELC concludes. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor

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