After more than four decades of protective status, the federal government moved to officially delist gray wolf populations in the lower 48 U.S. states from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The delisting was announced by U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt on Oct. 29, 2020.
“The Service based its final determination solely on the best scientific and commercial data available, a thorough analysis of threats and how they have been alleviated and the ongoing commitment and proven track record of states and tribes to continue managing for healthy wolf populations once delisted,” wrote the Department of the Interior in a news release. “This analysis includes the latest information about the wolf’s current and historical distribution in the contiguous United States.”
What Does Federal Delisting Mean?
The move transfers the power of management, responsibility, and protection to state and tribal wildlife management agencies in states with populations the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) consider recovered. FWS will continue to monitor the species until 2025 to ensure its success.
ESA is a conservation law in effect for more than four decades that has ensured the success of 99% of all listed species, according to the Natural Resource Defense Council. Gray wolves joined the list in 1974 after the canine was decimated by hunting and poaching in the early 1900s by people who targeted wolves largely because of their predation on hunted species like deer and elk, as well as concerns over livestock depredation.
In 2019, the Trump administration issued changes to regulations in how the ESA was interpreted, allowing for a delisting determination based on a “minimalist interpretation” that some argued could set precedent for scaling back of other recovery efforts for species. In particular, these changes weakened protections for threatened species by removing blanket protections and allowed for economic analyses to be considered in delisting propositions.
Why Were Gray Wolves Delisted?
The 2020 delisting applies to nearly all wolf populations in U.S. states and territories, with the exception of Alaska and Hawaii, but it’s not the first time that restrictions have been stripped for the species. FWS delisted gray wolves in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes in May 2009, at which point state officials began the transition to assume management, but the change faced many legal challenges over the next decade. In its move to remove federal protections for gray wolves in 2020, the Trump administration said that its decision was based on the “best scientific and commercial data available” and was determined based on five factors, including threats to their habitat, disease or predation, the inadequacy of current regulatory mechanisms, and other factors that might impact their existence.
At the time of writing, it is estimated that there are 6,000 individual wolves in the lower 48 states, a number that exceeded combined recovery goals for the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western Great Lakes populations.
“After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery. Today’s announcement simply reflects the determination that this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law,” said Bernhardt in a news release at the time.
What Was the Impact of the Decision To Delist Gray Wolves?
After the rule was originally published online on March 14, 2019, it received more than 107,000 public comments. Proponents, many of whom were Republican leaders from states with established gray wolf populations, said that the delisting was an “Endangered Species Act success story” and marked an opportunity for state leaders to implement their own measures unique to their area, removing “federal red tape and abusive litigation” to allow ranchers and livestock managers an opportunity to protect their herds from growing threats of gray wolves.
Opponents included conservation groups like the Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, 100 scientists, and more than 200 businesses who argued that it was too soon to determine whether the species had recovered and that the populations are not stable enough to be managed by state and local governments, particularly as the large predators do stay within state boundaries.
A study published in the October 2020 issue of BioScience, a journal published by the American Institute of Biological Science, rebutted the government’s decision and proposed framework, citing gaps in conservation coverage between states and increasing threats from climate change and other factors altering ecosystems. In particular, the researchers note that conservation measures need to coordinate two specific elements of the ESA, both distinct populations and their return to traditional ranges.