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USFWS Proposes Lifting Federal Protections For Wolves; Legal Challenges Predicted
Posted on Friday, March 08, 2019 (PST)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s top official announced this week the agency will propose lifting protections for wolves throughout the lower 48 states, triggering predictable opposition from environmental groups and continued litigation.


David Bernhardt, acting secretary of the Interior Department, announced the proposal Wednesday during a wildlife conference. The Service first proposed lifting Endangered Species Act protections for the wolf in 2013, in favor of turning over management of the species to individual states. That move was stalled when a court struck down a proposal to “delist” wolves in the Great Lakes Region of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.


Delisting opponents claim the species occupies only small fractions of their historic range, but the Service has maintained that the species has recovered since being listed under the ESA in 1975, with an estimated 5,000 animals currently occupying lower 48 states. Most of those wolves are in the Northern Rockies states of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, where delisting got underway after Congress mandated delisting in that region in 2011.


In consultation with the Service, those states have adopted regulations for limited hunting of wolves to cull populations and curb conflicts which many ranchers, farmers and hunters contend that wolves present. In Montana, for instance, hunting quotas have been adopted and adjusted from year-to-year based on population surveys. The state’s intent was to maintain viable wolf populations and avoid the species being re-listed, which would result in management authority being returned to the Service. If a quota is reached in a particular hunting district, the wolf hunt is ended in that district.


State officials in the Northern Rockies maintain that wolves have continued to thrive, with new packs occupying areas where they haven’t been seen since they were eradicated in the mid-20th century.


Despite hunts that have killed hundreds of wolves since 2011, wolf populations have proliferated westward, now occupying parts of Washington and Oregon. Most recently, wolves were confirmed to be present in California. Wolf populations in the Northwest part of the country originated from generations of “dispersers” from packs that were naturally established through migration from Canada to Northwest Montana, and from wolves that were reintroduced by the government to the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem that includes parts of Wyoming and Idaho.


“Recovery of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act is one of our nation’s great conservation successes, with the wolf joining other cherished species, such as the bald eagle, that have been brought back from the brink with the help of the ESA,” a Service statement said.


Despite continued expansion of wolf populations in new parts of the West, environmental groups contend they still occupy only about 5 percent of lands they once roamed. If adopted, the latest Service proposal “will slow or completely halt recovery of wolves into more of their former range,” according the Center for Biological Diversity.


“This disgusting proposal would be a death sentence for gray wolves across the country,” said Collette Adkins, a senior attorney for the organization. “The Trump Administration is dead set on appeasing special interests that want to kill wolves … The livestock industry and trophy hunters want wolves dead, but we’ll make sure the feds fulfill their obligation to restore wolves across the country.”


Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the Fish and Wildlife Service who now works with Defenders of Wildlife, told the Associated Press that ESA protections are needed to prevent “an all-out war on wolves” in states that allow them to be hunted.


“We don’t have any confidence that wolves will be managed like other wildlife,” Clark said. “We’re going to fight this any way possible.”


Adkins predicted legal action. “The courts have repeatedly slammed the Fish and Wildlife Service for prematurely removing wolf protections, but the agency has come back with its most egregious scheme yet,” she said. “Once again, we’ll take it to the courts and do everything we can to stop this illegal effort to kill wolf protections.”


The Center maintains that the proposal, which will be subject to a public review process, will prevent wolf populations from becoming re-established in the Adirondacks of the Northeast and in the southern Rockies. The proposal will not apply to the experimental Mexican wolf population, which is listed separately under the ESA.


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