Most U.S. wolves are listed as endangered—again. Here’s why.
A new court decision protects wolves, except in the Northern Rockies, just over a year after they were delisted.
BY DOUGLAS MAIN
PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 15, 2022
Gray wolves in most of the United States are once again protected under the Endangered Species Act, according to a new legal decision.
A U.S. District Court judge in Oakland, California, ruled on February 10 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acted improperly in delisting wolves. That decision, which went into effect in October 2020 toward the end of the Trump Administration, removed federal protections for the animals, arguing they had recovered within substantial parts of their range. This delisting decision has been upheld—and defended in court—by the Biden Administration.
The new ruling amounts to a thorough and sweeping rebuke of the wildlife agency’s policy on gray wolves, experts say. Conservationists, scientists, and even some hunters have cheered the decision, with something of an asterisk.
“It’s a good day for science, for wolves, for ecosystems, and for the people who value wolves,” says Adrian Treves, a wolf researcher and professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin.
For instance, the court decision means that most forms of wolf-killing, such as hunting or trapping, will be illegal outside the Northern Rockies. This is most relevant for the Great Lakes states, including Wisconsin, which authorized a controversial wolf hunt in February 2021 that killed 218 wolves in under three days.
But owing to previous legislation that wasn’t at issue in the current lawsuit, the ruling does not apply to wolves in the Northern Rockies, which includes Idaho, Montana, most of Wyoming, as well as parts of eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, and northern Utah. Those animals will continue to be managed by the states and not the federal government. Moreover, in 2021, Idaho and Montana enacted laws to remove most restrictions on wolf hunting. Well over 500 wolves have been killed in these states alone since last spring, out of a total population of around 2,600, according to government figures. That’s just the official tally—the likely death toll is higher.
“We’re overjoyed at the national decision but … at the same time it only highlights what is only a deteriorating situation in the Northern Rockies, where three states have gone all out to reduce restriction and introduce new ways to kill wolves,” says Ben Scrimshaw, an associate attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental group.
Not everybody is pleased with the ruling, however. Some livestock associations, hunter organizations, and state wildlife management authorities expressed opposition, saying wolves have recovered in parts of the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes.
“Today’s decision conflicts with the intended purpose of the Act and removes critical management tools for wolves that pose a tremendous threat to farmers and ranchers, rural economies, and vital land and natural resource conservation,” says Kaitlynn Glover, with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in a statement.
Vanessa Kauffman, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service, says the agency is reviewing the court decision, but didn’t offer further comment or respond to other questions.
Here’s what the decision means more broadly for wolves—and what’s next.
Under the gun
Gray wolves, which once roamed most of North America, were widely hunted and intentionally exterminated by government officials; by the mid-1900s, the last population of wolves in the Lower 48 was confined to Minnesota. The animals have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since the 1970s, and their populations have grown in the Great Lakes region through natural expansion and recolonization from Canada; the same is true for the Northern Rockies, though wolves were also reintroduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s.
Since then, wolf management in various regions has switched back and forth between the federal government and the states, making the situation complex and confusing even for professionals in the field. In 2011, Congress introduced legislation to delist gray wolves in most of the Northern Rockies; in 2017, the Fish and Wildlife Service did the same in Wyoming. The Trump Administration did the same in a decision announced in October 2020.
Several environmental and Native American groups sued the federal government challenging the Trump Administration’s delisting rule, arguing that it failed to uphold the Endangered Species Act in several ways. And the district court responsible for addressing the lawsuits, the Northern District of California, agreed. (Learn more: Is the gray wolf still endangered? Depends on whom you ask.)
“They rejected all the arguments that the [wildlife] service used to abandon the wolf issue,” says Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “It’s a pretty significant indictment of state management of wolves.”
Mexican gray wolves (a subspecies of gray wolf) and red wolves (a separate species) were not affected by October 2020 delisting decision and remain endangered. (These rare wolves are unique species. Here’s why that matters.)
The court rejected several justifications that the wildlife service used to delist wolves, such as the argument that gray wolves don’t represent a “species” under the definition of the Endangered Species Act because they’re found throughout many other nations and not confined to the United States. And because the animals are absent from a “significant portion of their range,” the agency’s argument that they had recovered also rang hollow, the judge said. The court also concluded that the service was wrong not to consider threats to wolves outside their core populations in the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes, explains Dan MacNulty, a wolf researcher at Utah State University.
Some influential groups in the Northern Rockies are against robust populations of wolves living in their states, for a variety of reasons. For one, ranchers worry about wolf predation on livestock, though the incidence tends to be relatively low and can be lessened with certain techniques, such as using guard dogs and protected livestock enclosures, scientists say. Hunters also argue that wolves reduce elk populations, though most of the places where wolves have been killed in Montana are at or above target levels of elk, MacNulty says.
Furthermore, the federal government and its regulations are often not popular in the rural West, and many view the wolf under that lens.
Wolf conservation has become an increasingly divisive issue, and the state legislatures of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming have tried to seriously curtail wolves’ numbers. Since the spring of 2021, hunters and trappers in those three states (mostly Montana) have killed 24 wolves that wandered outside Yellowstone National Park, which has sparked widespread outrage among the scientific community, wolf advocates, and millions who travel to the park to get a glimpse of the animals. (Learn more: New Idaho law allows killing up to 90 percent of state’s wolves.)
Carter Niemeyer, a retired wildlife manager based in Idaho who spent much of his career in predator control, says the situation is worse than he imagined it would ever get. These states are not listening to scientists or wildlife managers, he says.
Moreover, he fears, the rise in hunting and abandonment of science-based management in the Northern Rockies could give a bad name to state management in general, making federal protections more likely to be enacted.
“I’ve been around a long time and I have never seen such an attack on wolves,” says Clark, who was also the head of the Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997 to 2001.
Some worry, however, that the seesawing of protections between state and the federal could worsen divisions between people on different sides of the issue.
“Nobody wins when federal protections whipsaw back-and-forth, including wolves,” says Jennifer Raynor, who has studied the economic and sociological aspects of wolf conservation at Wesleyan University. “Good management requires a long and predictable planning horizon, which isn't possible when the regulatory landscape is constantly changing.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service has begun a review of the status of wolves in the Northern Rockies, and that could theoretically lead to them being relisted too. But for some, that protection couldn’t come soon enough.
“The wolves aren’t going to wait for a status review; they’re in trouble,” Clark says.
Organizations have urged the Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, to enact an emergency re-listing of wolves in the Northern Rockies, which is in her power—but which could come with significant political backlash.
Haaland, for her part, has signaled a strong interest in protecting wolves in an op-ed published February 7 in USA Today.
“Recent laws passed in some western states undermine state wildlife managers by promoting precipitous reductions in wolf populations, such as removing bag limits, baiting, snaring, night hunting, and pursuit by dogs,” Haaland wrote—“the same kind of practices that nearly wiped out wolves during the last century.”
Gray Wolf (Canis Lupus): the largest wild member of the dog family.
AKA: Timber Wolf Kingdom: | Animalia Phylum: | Chordata Class: | Mammalia
Order: | Carnivora Family: | Canidae Genus: | Canis Species: | C. Lupus
Wolves and Mythology:
The gray wolf is a common motif in Eurasia and North America, corresponding with the wolf’s geographic location. As a predator, the wolf is strongly associated with danger and destruction. In modern society, the “Big Bad Wolf” is a common trope due to the threats it poses to both humans and livestock. However, early human societies that hunted to survive admired the wolf and tried to mimic its habitat. The wolf remains an important figure in nomadic groups’ culture and religion in both Eurasia and the North American Plains, but the best known cultural contribution is that of household dogs: wolves were domesticated several thousand years ago, and selective breeding produced dogs as pets.
In fables and literature, wolves have been portrayed as dangerous and deceitful. Greek Storyteller Aesop featured wolves in multiple fables, including his most famous, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” The phrase “to cry wolf” was derived from this fable, which is directed at those who knowingly raise false alarms. The Bible contains numerous references to wolves, which are typically used as a metaphor for greed and destruction.
Later, in 1697, the tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” further tarnished the wolf’s reputation in the Western world. Over time, the wolf continues to appear as the villain. The negative connotation of wolves in modern times contributed to wolf populations’ rapid decline in North America, Mexico, and most of Europe, although efforts like Yellowstone Wolf are helping re-wild and re-introduce gray wolves to the place they belong.
Size and Weight: A northern male wolf is about 6.6 feet long, including the bushy tail, and it stands about 30 inches tall at the shoulder. On average, it weighs about 100 pounds, but it can range from 31 to 143 pounds. Females average about 20 percent smaller than males.
The size of the wolf depends on its geographic location. The largest wolves are found in west-central Canada, Alaska, and across northern Asia. The smallest tend to be near the southern end of their distribution in the Middle East, Arabia, and India.
Fur: Fur on the upper body, though usually gray, may be brown, reddish, black, or whitish, while the underparts and legs are usually yellow-white. In the arctic region, light-colored wolves are common.
The wolf has very dense and fluffy winter fur. The winter fur is highly resistant to the cold. Wolves in northern climates can rest comfortably in open areas at minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Diet: Wolves are natural-born predators and are well-equipped to take down prey. They have keen senses, large canine teeth, powerful jaws, and the ability to run at 37 miles per hour.
Gray wolves typically hunt and move overnight, especially in areas with a high human population. Their main prey are large herbivores, including deer, elk, moose, bison, bighorn sheep, caribou, and musk oxen. When available, wolves will hunt beavers and hares. Canadian wolves will fish for Pacific salmon. Once they successfully make a kill, the pack will gorge and linger. They typically consume 7 to 20 pounds per animal.
Habitat: Wolves can be found from the tundra to the woods, forests, grasslands, or even deserts. Their presence is dependent largely on the availability of prey.
Typically, a wolf pack’s range will be between 80 and 300 miles, depending on the number and spread of prey. In regions with extreme climates, such as the Arctic, the pack’s territory can span over 1,000 square miles.
Geography: The gray wolf inhabits vast areas of the Northern Hemisphere, spreading from North America to Eurasia and into the Arctic regions.
Lifespan: Wolves can live up to 13 years in the wild, though few survive to that age. On average, they live from 6 to 8 years.
Pack Behavior: Gray wolves typically live in packs of 6 to 10 individuals, but the pack can include up to two dozen wolves. A pack is a family group with an adult breeding pair (the alpha male and alpha female) and their offspring at all ages. Wolves form strong social bonds with each other, allowing them to form the wolf pack.
The alpha female and alpha male lead the pack and guide the group’s activities. While the female predominates in roles like care and defense of pups, the male predominates in foraging and food provisioning. Both males and females are active in hunting and killing prey.
Breeding: Wolves usually breed between February and April, typically between the alpha male and alpha female. The female will give birth to a litter of about 5 to 6 pups in the spring, following the two-month gestation period. The pups are born in a den consisting of a natural hole or burrow. They are cared for by all members of the pack and are the center of attention of the pack during the early months in spring and summer.
By October or November, most pups are almost adult-size. After two or more years in the pack, they may leave to find a mate, establish a new territory or form their own pack. Wolves that stay with their own pack may replace their parent as the alpha or breeding member of the pack.
Conservation Status: According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the gray wolf is considered of least concern.
Threats: Other than man, wolves have few natural enemies. Humans are the leading cause of death for wolves in most areas of the world. However, in areas with high wolf density and declining prey populations, other wolves and starvation are major causes of death.
Canine parvovirus, distemper, rabies, blastomycosis, Lyme disease, lice, mange, and heartworm are among the diseases and parasites that affect wolves.
There are between 5 and 24 subspecies of gray wolves in North America, 7 to 12 in Eurasia, and 1 in Africa.
Wolves communicate with one another by vocalizations, scent-marking, and visual signaling, such as facial expression, body position, and tail position.
Howling is another form of communication It helps the pack stay in contact with one another. There is also evidence that howling strengthens social bonds among pack members.
Wolves mark their territory with urine and feces to inform neighboring packs of their presence and to let them know that they should not intrude. Intruding packs are often killed by resident packs, yet they are accepted in some instances.
Wolves are monogamous animals and stay with the same mate for life.
In the continental United States, gray wolves were hunted to near extinction due to the threats they posed on human safety and livestock. Gray wolves were reintroduced to portions of the U.S., such as Yellowstone, during the 1990s. They had been absent in the region since the 1930s, and the reintroduction was part of a federal recovery plan.