Rocky Mountain gray wolves won’t get endangered species protections

Gray wolves that inhabit the Northern Rocky Mountains will not receive protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced Friday.

In making this determination, the federal agency rejected petitions from wildlife conservation groups to list the animals under the ESA in the Northern Rockies and the Western U.S.

The decision, which maintains the status quo, stems from a comprehensive analysis that incorporated best available data from federal, state and tribal sources, according to the FWS.

After modeling various threats to the wolves, including human-induced mortality and diseases, the agency concluded that the wolves are not at risk of extinction in the U.S. West.

Gray wolves are currently deemed endangered under the ESA in 44 states, threatened in Minnesota and under state jurisdiction in Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and portions of eastern Oregon and Washington, per the FWS.

Agency data as of the end of 2022 indicated there were about 2,797 wolves distributed across at least 286 packs in seven U.S. West states.

“This population size and widespread distribution contribute to the resiliency and redundancy of wolves in this region,” the FWS said in a statement.

“The population maintains high genetic diversity and connectivity, further supporting their ability to adapt to future changes,” the agency added.

The goal of providing ESA protections would have been to prevent “states like Idaho, Montana and Wyoming from allowing the widespread killings of wolves,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which co-sponsored one of the two petitions.

“By denying protections to these beautiful creatures the Service is letting northern Rockies states continue erasing decades of recovery efforts,” Kristine Akland, a program director for the center, said in a statement.

In Idaho, for example, the state can hire private contractors to kill wolves, while also letting hunters target an unlimited number of animals year-round, the conservation group noted.

Montana wolf trappers can use night-vision scopes on private land, strangulation snares on both public and private property and bait to lure the animals, according to the group.

And across most of Wyoming, gray wolves are considered predatory animals and can therefore be killed at any time without a license, the petitioners added.

“We won’t stand idly by and watch as Northern Rockies wolves are slaughtered year after year,” Akland said. “Wolves are an invaluable part of their ecosystems and deserve strong federal protections.”

The Center for Biological Diversity said it is considering taking legal action against the FWS’s denial of the listing petition.

Some 70 groups behind the second petition, led by the Western Watersheds Project, likewise stressed Friday that they were preparing to potentially challenge the refusal in court.

“Wolves aren’t a political football, they are a native wildlife species key to balancing ecosystem health,” Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement Friday.

Molvar expressed disappointment in the decision, emphasizing that “the Biden administration had the opportunity to follow the science and the law, and ensure real recovery for the species.”

“A handful of states are standing in the way of wolf recovery nationwide, espousing an outdated, anti-science, eradication mindset,” added Kelly Nokes, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center.

The FWS decision comes less than two months after Colorado parks officials received a green light from a federal court to begin reintroducing gray wolves into their native habitats in the Centennial State.

While that effort — a voter-approved Colorado Wolf Restoration and Management Plan — faced  pushback from ranchers, the FWS in November designated the gray wolves as an “experimental population” in Colorado, enabling their reintroduction outside their current range.

Responding to the FWS determination Friday, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle slammed the ruling — but for varying reasons and opposing aims.

Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said the decision “fails to alleviate the concerns of the millions of Americans impacted by an unchecked gray wolf population.”

Westerman argued that ESA rulings have the potential to impact American “lives and livelihoods time and time again” and are “illustrative of a broken system that allows bureaucrats to make decisions without local community input.”

“Despite today’s announcement, it remains clear that the gray wolf is a recovered species, and its management should be transferred over to the states,” he added.

The top-ranking Democrat in the same committee, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), likewise expressed disappointment in the FWS decision but for different reasons.

As opposed to Westerman’s call to weaken federal ESA powers, Grijalva expressed support for strengthened protections and improvements in the agency’s approach to “harmful state regulations.”

The Arizona Democrat accused the FWS of ignoring “the existential threat — which the Service has acknowledged — that reckless state laws, like those in Montana and Idaho, pose to the species.”

“These state regulations have proven to be anti-science, anti-conservation, and cruel,” Grijalva said. “Now they’ve gotten the rubber stamp from FWS to maintain this status quo.”

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