Gray Wolves’ Reprieve

Dan Sealy, NEC Legislative Analyst

Gray wolf. Credit: Gary Kramer / USFWS.

On February 10, 2022, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White of Oakland, California restored federal protections to gray wolves across much of the U.S. White’s ruling reverses a 2020 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to delist wolves from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

Included in the list of wildlife conservation organizations represented in the lawsuit challenging the delisting of the gray wolf were local organizations including the Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC), Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, and Klamath Forest Alliance as well as  WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Cascadia Wildlands, The Lands Council, Wildlands Network, and Kettle Range Conservation Group, represented by the Western Environmental Law Center. 

Judge White wrote that the USFWS failed to fully consider the species-wide recovery of gray wolves, giving too much emphasis on recovered populations in the Northern Rockies and Midwest. In addition, White wrote in his opinion that the agency had neglected the recovery of “West Coast Wolves” in California, Oregon, and Washington.  His decision immediately restored federal protections to wolves in the Midwest and parts of the West. This case applies to wolves in the Northern Rockies, including Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, as well as portions of adjacent states. Those wolf populations were delisted by Congress in 2011. 

Restored Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf come after they were eliminated by the Trump administration in 2020. The ruling orders the USFWS to resume recovery efforts for the imperiled species and redesignates the gray wolf as a species threatened with extinction in the lower 48 states with the exception of the Northern Rockies population, for which wolf protections were removed by Congress in 2011.

In a press release, Tom Wheeler of EPIC wrote: “California’s wolves are just starting to return home. Today’s decision means these animals will have the help of federal wildlife managers to establish a true foothold in their historic habitat in the state.”

“We must learn to coexist with gray wolves. These highly intelligent and social animals play a key role in balancing entire ecosystems,” said Kimberly Baker of the Klamath Forest Alliance. “Federal protection is paramount to safeguarding this nation’s rightful heritage.”

Today the USFWS estimates only 132 wolves survive in Washington state, 173 in Oregon (with only 19 outside of northeastern Oregon), and fewer than about 20 in California. Some western states have had a few wolf sightings in recent years, but wolves remain functionally absent from their historical habitat in several western states. 

“Over the past two winters, we lost icons of wolf recovery when OR-7 and his mate OR-94 passed away in southern Oregon’s Cascades. These two wolves represent the first generation of wolves in western Oregon in nearly a century,” said Michael Dotson with the conservation group Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center based in southwest Oregon. “Delisting is premature and obviously politically driven.”

What is next? If the Department of the Interior, USFWS or groups decide to challenge Judge White’s decision, that challenge would be made in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. There has been no decision regarding an appeal by the USFWS, which made this determination in the last administration but was defended by the current administration.  The Department of the Interior has told the media that it  is reviewing the decision and declined to comment further. Gray wolves were first listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1967.