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Federal judge restores protections for gray wolves in much of U.S., reversing Trump policy

The decision doesn’t restore protections for wolves in the northern Rockies, where they are being aggressively hunted.

A gray wolf in Montana. (Dennis Fast/VWPics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
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A federal judge restored protections for gray wolves in much of the country, reversing a decision by the Trump administration that stripped Endangered Species Act protections and exposed the animals to aggressive hunting in areas where they were nearly killed off years ago.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White in Northern California immediately reimposes safeguards for wolf populations in the Lower 48 outside of northern Rocky Mountain states — one of the hotbeds of wolf hunting — and puts federal officials in charge of managing wolf populations in places such as the Great Lakes region, the Pacific coast and other parts of their range.

During the Trump administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had taken gray wolves off the list of endangered species and given control back to states. In his ruling, White challenged the rationale for doing so, saying the agency didn’t rely on the best available science or fully address threats to wolves outside of their main populations.

“The Service failed to adequately consider the threats to wolves outside of the core populations in the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains in delisting the entire species,” White wrote.

Environmental groups hailed the decision but warned that intense hunting pressure in states such as Montana, Idaho and Wyoming — which were not part of this court case — remains a serious threat to the country’s gray wolves. Hunters nearly wiped them out a century ago in much of the country, but federal protections have helped reestablish many packs in recent decades.

“This is huge for wolves throughout much of the Lower 48,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and chief executive of Defenders of Wildlife, one of the organizations that sued the Interior Department over the Trump-era policy. “Hopefully today’s ruling kind of stops the hemorrhage.”

Clark said in an interview that “while we’re certainly thrilled” about the court ruling, “we’re not done,” because hunting in the northern Rockies remains “a huge part of the problem.”

“We need the Biden administration to emergency-list the wolves in that area, the northern Rockies,” she said. “Because the states are just no holds barred, the states are just clearly not doing right by the wolves.”

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The controversy over wolf hunting this year has been particularly intense in Montana and the area around Yellowstone National Park, where gray wolves were reintroduced in 1995 after being eliminated by hunters in the 1920s. Last year, after new state laws backed by Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte eased rules on hunting, state fish and game commissioners removed wolf-hunting quotas in areas north of Yellowstone that are popular with wolf packs, which wander in and out of the park.

In recent months, more than 20 of these wolves have been killed leaving Yellowstone, primarily in Montana, causing an outcry among wildlife advocates, tourists who come to observe the wolves, and wildlife-guiding businesses that rely on those tourists.

This year, Interior officials have been reviewing whether to list gray wolves again under the Endangered Species Act, including in these states.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland wrote in an op-ed this week in USA Today that she is “committed to ensuring that wolves have the conservation they need to survive and thrive in the wild based on science and law.”

Haaland wrote that “we are alarmed by recent reports from Montana” and “have communicated to state officials that these kinds of actions jeopardize the decades of federal and state partnerships that successfully recovered gray wolves in the northern Rockies.”

Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the department was reviewing the court’s decision.

Outside of the northern Rockies, the Trump administration’s 2020 rule change moved management of gray wolves back to the state wildlife agencies. There are an estimated 6,000 gray wolves, mostly in three Midwestern states — Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota — and more than 2,000 in states such as Oregon, California and Washington.

Wildlife advocates were pleased that the judge’s ruling would stop wolf hunting in Wisconsin, where more than 200 wolves were killed over four days of hunting last year.

“Today is a monumental victory for wolves who will now be protected from state-sponsored bloodbaths,” Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said in a statement.

But pro-hunting groups criticized the decision.

“We are disappointed that an activist judge from California decided to tell farmers, ranchers, and anyone who supports a balanced ecosystem with common-sense predator management that he knows better than them,” Luke Hilgemann, president and CEO of Hunter Nation, a Kansas-based hunting advocacy group, said in a statement.

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