California judge’s ruling restores federal protection of gray wolves

by Jesse White
Mesabi Tribune
And just like that, the gray wolf has made the list.
The endangered species list, that is.
Last Thursday, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White in California ruled in favor of a lawsuit brought by the Humane Society of the United States and other wildlife organizations against the U.S. Department of the Interior in January 2021, reversing a 2020 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) rule removing wolves from the list in 45 states.
According to a story in the Iowa Capital Dispatch, that decision “relied too much on thriving gray wolf populations near the Great Lakes and in the Rocky Mountains, without studying populations in the rest of the contiguous United States,” wrote White, who was named to the federal bench by President George W. Bush.
“The Service did not adequately consider threats to wolves outside of these core populations,” he wrote. “Instead, the Service avoids analyzing these wolves by concluding, with little explanation or analysis, that wolves outside of the core populations are not necessary to the recovery of the species.”
The FWS finalized the delisting rule in November 2020.
Conservation groups Earthjustice, Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association and Oregon Wild joined the Humane Society of the United States in challenging the ruling in court.
The lawsuit claimed the USFWS did not take proper consideration when it stripped the animal of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections, which went into effect in January 2021, “under the assumption its population sufficiently recovered.”
The federal government has 60 days to appeal the court’s decision but has not responded yet. According to media reports, Interior Department spokesperson Melissa Schwartz said the agency was reviewing Thursday’s decision and offered no further comment.
To date, the Biden Administration has supported the delisting, which was announced under former President Donald Trump, as attorney’s for the president have argued wolves were resilient enough to bounce back even if their numbers dropped sharply due to intensive hunting.
Thursday’s ruling comes less than two weeks after two northern Minnesota lawmakers, Rep. Dave Lislegard, (DFL) Aurora (chief author), and Rep. Rob Ecklund (DFL) International Falls, introduced legislation in the House (HF 2787), which, if passed, would require the Minnesota DNR to prescribe an annual open season for wolves.
“The ruling is an unfortunate setback for our legislation and puts the prospects of gaining momentum up in the air. The bill would allow a hunting season if the wolf is once again delisted, so I think it’s still important for us to move forward with the legislation in case the ruling is reversed,” Lislegard said by email Monday. “Still, I acknowledge the timing of the ruling during a short legislative session is a complication none of us working to solve this problem want.”
Lislegard said that the Biden administration defended the decision to delist, and he would encourage them to keep working to strike down the court’s latest action.
“I’d like the chance to ask the deciding judge what he knows about the wolf situation we’re facing in northeastern Minnesota. I wonder how many deer hunters, cattle producers, or landowners he spoke with so he could learn about the very real consequences they’re facing as a result of the rapidly growing wolf population,” Lislegard said. “Watching advocacy groups on issues like this — where emotions too often get in the way of the facts — search the country far and wide for judges sympathetic to their position is a circumvention of justice.”
Eighth District U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber said by email Monday that the ruling ignores science and fact.
“In Minnesota, the gray wolf is recovered. The Biden, Trump, and Obama Administrations all agreed. According to our own experts at the DNR, gray wolves in Minnesota are well above the ESA Recovery plan goal. And delisting the gray wolf enjoys broad support from Minnesota’s hundreds of thousands of deer hunters,” Stauber said. “Additionally, these wolves are now a danger to domestic animals and livestock here in the northland. It’s never been more important to pass the Managing Predators Act I introduced with Rep. Tom Tiffany from Wisconsin to restore control to the scientists in Minnesota, and not let unelected judges and bureaucrats from D.C. and California decide how we protect our livestock, support our deer herds, and manage our gray wolves.”
Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, Republican lead on the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Spencer Igo, R-Grand Rapids, issued the following joint statement regarding the ruling.
“Once again we have coastal elite judges telling Minnesota what’s best in our own state. Over the past decade Minnesota has surpassed the state’s goal by wide margins, which was completely ignored by today’s ruling. We know our state far better than a judge from California. We need these interlopers to butt out, let Minnesota retain control over its wildlife, and for our federal delegation to step up and right this wrong.”
The gray wolf had been protected for more than 45 years under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. They were listed in 1974 when fewer than 1,000 remained — all of them in Northeastern Minnesota — after centuries of unregulated hunting, trapping and poisoning.
Last week’s ruling continues a familiar theme when it comes to the controversial animal.
In 2012, the gray wolf was removed from the endangered species list after a lengthy process. That ruling returned management to the states and allowed state agencies to hold wolf trapping and hunting seasons.
But in 2014 a federal judge, responding to a lawsuit filed two years earlier, ruled that the Service had erred in taking wolves off the endangered list too soon.
In 2020, under Trump’s direction, the FWS once again announced that the gray wolf would be delisted. It became official on Jan. 4, 2021, allowing for individual state agencies to once again assume management of the species.
At the same time, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials have been working to update the state’s wolf management plan, which was originally adopted in 2001, since early 2020 and officials expect to release a finalized version this year.
According to the DNR, that plan “provides the framework that guides the state’s decisions about wolf regulations, population monitoring, management, conflicts, enforcement, damage control, education, research and other issues.”
The DNR estimates Minnesota’s 2019-2020 wolf population at 2,700, with a 90 percent confidence interval. That means the actual number was likely somewhere from 2,244 to 3,252 statewide.
Wolf estimates after the 2012 to 2014 hunting/trapping seasons were 2,200 to 2,400.
According to figures from 2018, throughout the country there are an estimated 6,000 wolves, mostly in the upper Great Lakes and northern Rocky Mountain west.
According to FWS officials, the population in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota is about 4,400 strong, with the Northern Rocky Mountains population (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, eastern Oregon and Washington and north-central Utah) standing at around 1,700.
There are an estimated 12,000-14,000 wolves in eastern Canada and 15,000 in western Canada, each of which is connected to the adjacent gray wolf population in the US. Wolves have also begun to expand into northern California and western Oregon and western Washington.
According to the most recent formal wolf population survey in Minnesota — done in 2018 — there are approximately 465 packs in Minnesota that average a mid-winter pack size of 4.85. That number puts the population estimate at about 2,655.
Twenty years earlier, in 1988, the DNR estimated the population size to be approximately 1,521 wolves in 233 packs. In 1998 the pack size was estimated to be 385 with a population of 2,445 wolves statewide.
The DNR, along with other state agencies, conducts formal population surveys every five years but since 2013 officials have been keeping closer, less informal, yearly tabs on the animal via several methods.
In 1988, according to the DNR’s survey results, the total wolf range was about 60,299 kilometers or just over 37,000 miles. Today that range is 111,862 kilometers or nearly 70,000 miles.