A judge has ruled that the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service once again violated the Endangered Species Act when removing protections from wolves nationally. This decision, in response to litigation filed by NRDC and its partners, returns federal protections to wolves across the country except in the Northern Rockies, where wolves were delisted by Congress in 2011. The ruling is the latest in a string of unsuccessful attempts by the Service to remove ESA protections from wolves and while the issue is complicated legally and scientifically, there is one big reason that the Service has been unable to delist wolves: they never developed and implemented a national recovery plan.
Gray wolves used to be found in most, if not all, of the lower 48 states, but eventually they were eradicated from most of their range. By the time they were added to the Endangered Species Act in the early 1970s, only a small population of wolves remained in the remote woods of Minnesota. Although wolves were listed as threatened throughout the entire lower 48, the US Fish and Wildlife Service only ever worked to recover a few isolated populations of wolves in the Great Lakes, Northern Rockies, and Southwest (Mexican wolf population, which is now classified separately as a subspecies).
For the Great Lakes wolf population and the Northern Rockies, the Service developed separate recovery plans with drastically low recovery targets that were not based on any science. Furthermore, these recovery plans operated in isolation, and ignored large swaths of suitable, historic habitat in other areas of the country including the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, California and the Intermountain West (Colorado and Utah).
We have long advocated for a coordinated, national recovery plan for wolves based on the best available science. In fact, in 2008 we petitioned the Service to develop a national recovery plan and outlined what a coordinated, regional approach based on science could look like. But the Service has refused to re-evaluate their approach—instead, they have advanced failed attempt after failed attempt to remove ESA protections from the nation-wide listing of wolves.
In the Northern Rockies—the only area in the lower 48 where Endangered Species Act protections have not been restored by this ruling—the wolf population is now suffering from state mismanagement. Aggressive hunting and trapping policies threaten to reverse the progress of recovery by driving that population down—including many of the world-revered wolves from Yellowstone National Park. This tragedy is the result of failed leadership from the US Fish and Wildlife Service for allowing outdated and unscientific recovery goals to guide their delisting plans which have since become the basis for misguided state management. This is exactly why we opposed delisting this population despite assurances from the then Director of the Service, Dan Ashe, that states would manage wolves well above those low limits. Even Ashe now sees the flaws in his own thinking.
The recent court ruling gives the Service another chance to get it right. First, they should return protections to wolves in the Northern Rockies and restore the full lower 48 listing. Then they should develop a coordinated, representative and science-based recovery plan for gray wolves that ensures the long-term persistence of robust populations even after federal protections are removed. If the Service wants to successfully delist wolves at the national level, they are first going to need to recover them at the national level.