In March, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released a proposed rule to fully delist all gray wolves (Canis lupus) across the contiguous United States except the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) in Arizona and New Mexico. The USFWS has already delisted wolves in the northern Rocky Mountain states, with deadly consequences.
Gray wolves were nearly exterminated from the continental United States during the early 20th century, primarily as a result of aggressive eradication campaigns. Once numbering approximately 2 million and occupying the majority of US states, the species was reduced to two populations of approximately 1,040 animals in northeastern Minnesota and Michigan’s Isle Royale. Their numbers have slowly increased in recent decades due to Endangered Species Act protections, but their recovery and resettlement of suitable habitat is far from complete. Even today, after nearly 50 years of protections, only about 6,100 gray wolves inhabit pockets of land in nine states.
In its proposal, the USFWS found that the regulatory mechanisms in place at the state level to protect the species and its habitat were sufficient. This determination is incorrect, as many states have prioritized the protection of livestock and recreational hunting interests over wolves, thereby jeopardizing maintenance of healthy and viable wolf populations as the species continues to recover.
In those states where the USFWS has ceded control of wolf populations to state agencies, the pretense of protection has been abandoned in favor of senseless slaughter of wolves in brutal fashion. Since 2011, nearly 3,500 wolves have been shot and cruelly trapped across Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. In Wyoming, wolves can be killed in most of the state year-round with guns, traps, snares, and explosives, or even by running them down with trucks, ATVs, or snowmobiles. During the brief time when wolves were delisted in the Great Lakes region, wolf hunting was permitted in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In Minnesota, 25 percent of the state’s wolves were killed during the first hunting season alone. Upon delisting, other states may also permit hunting and trapping, undermining decades of investment in rebuilding population numbers.
Many of the states’ wolf management plans are vague and unenforceable, failing to (1) specify the number of wolves to be protected, (2) articulate what actions will be taken to fulfill the states’ management goals, and (3) identify guaranteed sources of funding to achieve the conservation efforts required to ensure the wolves’ viability. The USFWS proposal would also increase the ability of state wildlife agencies, USDA Wildlife Services, and others to remove “nuisance” wolves and entire packs when conflicts arise, as has already occurred in eastern Oregon and Washington at the behest of the ranching industry.
This delisting proposal has been met with widespread criticism, including from members of Congress. Representatives Don Beyer (D-VA) and Peter DeFazio (D-OR) wrote a letter, signed by 67 other members, asking the USFWS to maintain ESA protections for gray wolves. AWI continues to work with members of Congress to convince the USFWS to reverse its position.