By the time the gray wolf was listed as endangered on the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1978, it had been nearly exterminated by hunters. The protections given to the gray wolf in 1978 helped certain populations of the wolf to increase. This was helped along by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in 1994 when they brought more wolves into the United States from Canada. With more and more wolves in certain areas of the U.S., ranchers worried about their livestock. This led those states, including Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, to pressure the government to remove the wolf from the Endangered Species List. Since 2005, the agency responsible for managing the gray wolf has tried several times to remove federal protections for the gray wolf. Their attempts have resulted in multiple court cases opposing this action.
Under the ESA, protected species may be divided into Distinct Population Segments (DPS). A “distinct population segment” is a population of individual animals that is separate and different from the rest of the species in some way. This is done in order to ensure that different populations of a species that require different levels of federal protection have an equal opportunity to fully recover. Two major gray wolf populations called the Western Great Lakes DPS and the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS were removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007 and 2008. The de-listing of these two populations did not affect wolves in the rest of the U.S., which were still protected under the ESA. Environmental groups challenged this in Court and won, so the wolf was back on the list in those populations. However, in 2011, Congress became involved in the Rocky Mountain DPS and included a provision in its 2011 budget that delisted the wolf in that population segment. Not only was this highly unusual, but it also made it so that the delisting could not be challenged in court. In addition, in May 2011, the FWS announced a proposal to once again delist the Western Great Lakes DPS, which is still pending.
Today, protections for the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act vary from region to region. In many states, the wolf remains listed as endangered. In other areas, the wolf has limited or no federal protections. Each time the FWS removes gray wolf protections, their action is challenged by environmental groups who do not think the wolf has sufficiently recovered under the act. In addition, because states want to manage the wolves themselves without federal interference and protect the interests of their farmers, the legal and political battle over how to best protect the gray wolf continues today.