The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump strips protections for endangered gray wolves

Hunters and ranchers celebrate while conservationists say wolves will be hunted to extinction.

A female gray wolf and two of the three pups born in 2017 were captured by a remote camera in the wilds of Lassen National Forest in Northern California. (U.S. Forest Service/AP)

The Trump administration announced Thursday that it is stripping gray wolves of their Endangered Species Act protections in the Lower 48 states, ignoring an outcry from conservation groups and scientists who say the animals will be slaughtered as a result and might not survive.

Under a final rule expected to go into effect early next week, Interior Department Secretary David Bernhardt said state wildlife agencies will assume control of managing an estimated 6,000 wolves, mostly in three Midwestern states — Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. About 1,800 gray wolves are present in other states such as Oregon, California and Washington.

“Today’s action reflects the Trump Administration’s continued commitment to species conservation based on the parameters of the law and the best scientific and commercial data available,” Bernhardt said in a statement. “After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery.”

The population is up from 1,000 when gray wolves were listed as endangered starting in 1967, officials said. But their population is still so depleted that thousands of acres of historical wolf habitat in Utah, Colorado and Maine is uninhabited by any wolves, conservationists said.

Several conservation groups devoted to the preservation of wolves immediately announced their intent to sue.

Under Trump, the Interior Department has attempted to roll back protections under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to benefit the oil and gas industry, only to be stopped by the courts. It also greenlit controversial hunting practices on national preserves in Alaska, allowing hunters to bait the animals with doughnuts, crawl into dens and kill both bear cubs and wolf pups.

“Stripping protections for gray wolves is premature and reckless,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and chief executive for Defenders of Wildlife. “Gray wolves occupy only a fraction of their former range and need continued federal protection to fully recover. We will be taking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court to defend this iconic species.”

“This is no ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment for wolf recovery,” said Kristen Boyles, an Earthjustice attorney. “This delisting decision is what happens when bad science drives bad policy — and it’s illegal, so we will see them in court.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which implements the Endangered Species Act, said the opposite is true.

In a statement, Aurelia Skipwith, director of the service, called the delisting decision “a win for the gray wolf and the American people. I am grateful for these partnerships with states and tribes and their commitment to sustainable management of wolves that will ensure the species long-term survival following this delisting.”

The agency compared the recovery to other animals rescued by the Endangered Species Act, including the American alligator, bald eagle and brown pelican. But those animals were not as relentlessly pursued by homesteaders, ranchers, farmers and developers.

Safari Club International, the multinational hunting group, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association issued a joint statement lauding the decision. “Today we celebrate a conservation victory and a demonstration of a key facet of the Endangered Species Act: returning a species to state management after recovery efforts have succeeded,” the statement said.

Gray wolves roamed the entire continent until state supported hunting, poisoning and trapping decimated their numbers and rendered them nearly extinct. Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico suffered an even worse fate and red wolves that roamed the East Coast, as well as Texas and Louisiana, were virtually wiped out. Red wolves exist only in zoos and a tiny experimental wild population of fewer than 30 in North Carolina.

Fish and Wildlife has sought to delist gray wolves numerous times only to suffer setbacks. As recently as 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit blocked the agency from delisting wolves in the Great Lakes region, where most of them exist outside Alaska.

“When a species is already listed, the service cannot review a single segment with blinders on, ignoring the continuing status of the species’ remnant,” the court ruled. The Endangered Species Act “requires a comprehensive review of the entire listed species and its continuing status.”

Fish and Wildlife tried to work around that determination by removing protections for every single gray wolf. In an analysis, the agency reviewed human caused mortality suffered by gray wolves, as well as disease and climate change, and predicted they would survive without protections.

Conservationists said the analysis is suspect. A scientific peer review of Fish and Wildlife’s analysis said that while it’s true that wolves are in the midst of a recovery, the agency didn’t take key factors into consideration.

The reviewers said the agency underestimated the impact that illegal hunting could have on wolves, greatly limiting their recovery, said Jacob Malcom, director of the Center for Conservation Innovation at Defenders of Wildlife.

It also did not take into consideration that tiny segments of West Coast wolves in California, Oregon and Washington are isolated. Without a secure connection to larger populations, they are more likely to perish.

“Again and again, the courts have rejected premature removal of wolf protections,” said Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But instead of pursuing further wolf recovery, the Fish and Wildlife Service has just adopted the broadest, most destructive delisting rule yet.”

“The science is clear that to protect our communities and prevent future pandemics, we need to be doing more to protect nature and wildlife, not less,” said Bonnie Rice, Sierra Club senior campaign representative.