On Thursday, a court reinstated federal protections for gray wolves across most of the United States, after they were removed in the last days of the Trump administration, exposing the predators to slaughter that critics warned would jeopardize their recovery from widespread extinction a century ago.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to establish that wolf numbers could be sustained in the Midwest and parts of the West without protection under the Endangered Species Act, according to U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in Oakland, California. According to White, the agency also failed to examine risks to wolves outside of those key locations.
Last year, environmentalists filed a lawsuit against the government. Wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, as well as areas of other neighboring states, are unaffected by the ruling. After federal safeguards in that region were withdrawn by Congress last decade, the creatures are still under state control.
Attorneys for the Biden administration supported the Trump regulation that repealed protections, claiming that wolves are hardy enough to recover even if their numbers plummet due to aggressive killing.
The destiny of a species whose comeback from near-extinction has been hailed as a conservation success story is on the line. Hunters and farmers enraged by wolf assaults on large game herds and cattle have reacted angrily to the comeback. They argue such safeguards are no longer necessary.
Melissa Schwartz, a representative for the Interior Department, said the department was analyzing Thursday’s decision and had no further comment.
The judge’s ruling, according to wildlife advocacy organizations, would put an immediate halt to hunting in the Great Lakes area, where Wisconsin officials had been chastised after a wolf hunt last year blew above the state’s limits, killing 218 wolves in four days.
“Wolves in the Great Lakes region have been granted a reprieve,” said John Horning of the WildEarth Guardians conservation group.
Although wolf attacks on livestock are rare, they may be costly to farmers if their cows or sheep are killed.
Wolves have also reduced the amount of elk and deer populations, their natural prey, in some areas. Hunters who target large game animals have expressed their displeasure with this.
The American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Rifle Association, and other business organizations had asked the judge not to reinstate federal protection, instead allowing state officials to shoot wolves.
The Farm Bureau’s president, Zippy Duvall, said he was “very upset” by the decision, which he claimed overlooked wolves’ comeback beyond official population objectives.
“It’s incredibly irritating and absurd that some judge thousands of miles away is now telling us that our own scientific management of the species can’t be trusted,” said Republican state senator Ed McBroom of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “All they’re doing is forcing folks to take action on their own.”
Prior to the judge’s judgment, none of the Great Lakes states with established wolf populations — Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin — had scheduled any new wolf hunts. Officials indicated that all three were revising their wolf management protocols and that the effort will continue.
In October, a state judge in Wisconsin halted a hunt two weeks before it was set to begin, in response to a complaint alleging that it had been arranged illegally.
Republican legislators submitted pro-hunting motions in Michigan, where the wolf population is estimated to be about 700, but no official proposal came before the wildlife commission that determines hunting seasons.
Michigan authorities want wolf legal status to be more permanently determined before hunting is considered, “given the lengthy history of legal challenges to delisting judgments and the resultant fluctuating status of wolves,” according to Ed Golder of the state Department of Natural Resources.
In the case resolved on Thursday, the status of northern Rockies wolves was not disputed. However, after Republican state lawmakers in Montana and Idaho approved legislation last year aimed at reducing wolf numbers by making it easier to kill them, the US Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a separate investigation in September to see if protections for the region’s wolves should be reinstated.
Hunters and trappers, mostly in Montana, have killed a record 23 wolves outside Yellowstone National Park this winter as a result of the relaxed laws. Due of the popularity of Yellowstone’s wolf packs among tourists from all over the world, this has prompted public outcry.
Following the deaths, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland issued an op-ed this week in which she stated that if the northern Rockies wolf population is threatened, federal officials may consider granting emergency protection to the animal.
“Recent regulations approved in certain Western states weaken state wildlife management by encouraging precipitous wolf population decreases, such as abolishing bag restrictions, baiting, snaring, night hunting, and dog chase – the same techniques that almost wiped out wolves during the past century,” Haaland wrote.
Wolves originally roamed most of the United States, but by the 1930s, most of them had been wiped off by government-sponsored poisoning and trapping efforts.
In Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, a residual population in the western Great Lakes region has grown to 4,400 wolves. In the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest, more than 2,000 wolves live in six states.
Nonetheless, wolves are vanished from the majority of their historical range. Continued safeguards are needed, according to wildlife supporters, so that they can continue to spread in California, Colorado, Oregon, and other states.
From former President George W. Bush forward, both Democratic and Republican administrations have pushed to repeal or weaken federal wolf protections, which were initially implemented in 1974.