Gray Wolf Legal Challenges: 2005 to Present

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Brief Summary of Gray Wolf Legal Challenges
2005 to Present  Erin Furman (2011)


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.

Overview of Gray Wolf Legal Challenges: 2005 to Present
Erin Furman (2011)

In 2005, in much of the lower 48 states and Mexico, the Gray Wolf had the highest level of protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  Since it was an endangered species, it was illegal to kill or harm the wolf in any way.  In addition, there were three non-essential experimental populations treated as threatened.  A non-essential experimental population is one that is made up of wolves that were relocated from another area to create a new population segment.  In certain areas of the country today, however, wolf populations have been “downlisted” (listed as threatened instead of endangered) or completely delisted (removed from the federal list of endangered species).  This has created a legal and political battle that rages on today in the affected states.

The gray wolf was originally listed as endangered in 1978.  While it once roamed freely among most of the lower 48 states, it was nearly wiped out by hunters during the twentieth century.  In an effort to increase the small existing populations of gray wolves, in 1994, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) relocated gray wolves from Canada to Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.  These “Distinct Population Segments” or “DPS” exist today and are treated as threatened.  A “distinct population segment” is a population of individual animals that is separate and different from the rest of the species in some way.

In the last seventeen years since the reintroduction of wolves in the mid- and southwest, the number of wolves in those populations has grown substantially.  In some areas, gray wolves have exceeded the minimum criteria set forth by the FWS in its gray wolf recovery plan.  As a result, in 2007 and 2008, the FWS created and simultaneously removed some protections from the Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment (DPS) and the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS.  The Western Great Lakes DPS includes wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, the Eastern half of North and South Dakota, Northern Iowa, Northern Illinois, and Northwest Ohio.  The Northern Rocky Mountain DPS includes wolves in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Eastern Washington, Eastern Oregon, and North Central Utah.

Several months after the initial creation of the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS, which required Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to implement state management plans, environmental groups challenged the government’s rule.  Because of inconsistencies in the FWS’s decision to accept a Wyoming state wolf management plan it previously rejected, the environmental groups prevailed.  The gray wolf was relisted as endangered until April 2009 when the FWS issued another Final Rule that once again delisted the gray wolf in the Northern Rocky Mountain DPS except in Wyoming, where it was listed as threatened.  In its 2010 decision in Defenders of Wildlife v. Salazar, the court ordered that all wolves in this DPS be relisted as endangered.  Most recently, Congress included a provision in its 2011 budget that once again delisted the wolf in Idaho and Montana and downlisted gray wolves in Wyoming to threatened.

Environmental groups challenged the 2007 delisting of the Western Great lakes DPS and prevailed.  In December 2008, the gray wolf was relisted as threatened in Minnesota and endangered in the rest of the DPS.  In April 2009, the FWS once again delisted the Western Great Lakes DPS.  This Rule remained in effect for five months, at which time the Court restored gray wolf protections.  Most recently, in May 2011, the FWS announced a proposal to delist the Western Great Lakes DPS of the gray wolf which is still pending today.  The FWS expects to be ready to issue its Final Rule in December 2011.

Critics contend that there are many inconsistencies in the FWS’s decisions regarding the gray wolf and the ESA.  Due to conflicting interests between farmers, certain states, environmental groups, and the FWS, the gray wolf’s status on the ESA is in a state of flux.  Even though in certain areas the number of wolves has exceeded the numerical criteria set forth in its recovery plan, there remains an unresolved issue as to the threat humans continue to pose on the gray wolf’s survival.  As a result, it seems the political and legal battle over how to protect the gray wolf will not be ending anytime soon.

Related articles

Crying Wolf: The Unlawful Delisting of Northern Rocky Mountain Gray Wolves from Endangered Species Act Protections, Jesse H. Alderman, 50 B.C. L. Rev. 1195 (2009).

Casting Aside the Myth: Why Science is Never the Sole Factor in ESA Delisting , Andrea Carrillo, Animal Legal & Historical Center (2010).

The Alaskan Wolf War: The Public Trust Doctrine Missing in Action, Edward A. Fitzgerald, 15 Animal L. 193 (2008).

Dysfunctional Downlisting Defeated: Defenders of Wildlife v. Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior, Edward A. Fitzgerald, 34 B.C. Envtl. Aff. L. Rev. 37 (2007).


Related cases

Defenders of Wildlife v. Hall , --- F.Supp.2d ----, 2011 WL 3359937 (D.Mont.). Several wildlife organizations filed suit to challenge the FWS's Final Rule delisting the gray wolf Northern Rocky Mountain DPS.  The case was put on hold pending the outcome of several other legal battles regarding the wolf's status on the Endangered Species List, during which gray wolf protections were reinstated.  Then, in May 2011, Congress passed H.R. 1473, the Department of Defense and Full Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2011.  Section 1713 of the 2011 budget required the FWS to reinstate the rule the Court had previously vacated, essentially requiring the FWS to once again delist the gray wolf Northern Rocky Mountain DPS.  Consequently, this case was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because the plaintiff's claims were not yet ripe.

Related laws

Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Final Rule To Identify the Northern Rocky Mountain Population of Gray Wolf as a Distinct Population Segment and To Revise the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, 74 FR 15123 (April 2, 2009) .


Related Links

Web Center Links:

Topic Area on the Gray Wolf (up to 2005)

Topic Area on the Endangered Species Act

External Links:

Defenders of Wildlife Page for Gray Wolf -,_gray.php

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Species Page for the Gray Wolf -

National Wildlife Federation Page about the Gray Wolf -

Groups that support delisting of wolves: - Drovers Cattle Network Article: "Wolf delisting opens management options" (May 5, 2011).


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