A pair of Mexican gray wolves enjoying snow around their outdoor habitat at the Brookfield (Ill.) Zoo in 2012. (AP Photo/Chicago Zoological Society, Jim Schulz)

A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled against the Interior Department’s decision to strip protections from a regional population of endangered gray wolves and allow states to openly hunt them.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, arguably the nation’s most important appellate court after the Supreme Court, upheld a lower court’s decision that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of Interior, has the authority to group wolves in the western Great Lakes region into a segment as it did in 2011, but does not have the power to simply remove them from the endangered species list without considering the move’s impact on the entire species of gray wolves in their range.

“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. Having started the process, the service cannot call it quits upon finding a single distinct population segment.”

In affirming the lower court ruling, the judges added to a succession of losses by Interior in an ongoing attempt to de-list gray wolves mostly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as a few in other states such as Ohio, North Dakota and Indiana, since 2003.

At that time, Fish and Wildlife divided the nation’s population of gray wolves into three segments — western, eastern and southwestern. When district courts in Oregon and Vermont struck down the divisions after legal challenges from conservationists, Fish and Wildlife tried another maneuver. It ruled that a western Great Lakes population of wolves no longer deserved protections and struck them off the endangered list.

“That rule soon met the same fate as its … predecessors,” the appeals court judges wrote in Tuesday’s ruling. Another district court ruled that Fish and Wildlife failed to do due diligence “to acknowledge and address crucial … ambiguities” of arbitrarily designating gray wolf segments in an effort to remove their protection.

“The Endangered Species Act … requires the service, when reviewing and redetermining the status of a species, to look at the whole picture of the listed species, not just a segment of it.”

Interior Department officials declined to comment, but conservation groups voiced their approval. In a statement, the Center for Biological Diversity said the decision “protects more than 3,000 wolves and ensures hundreds … will not be killed each year.” The group’s endangered species director, Noah Greenwald, added: “Wolves are missing from more than 90 percent of their historic range in the Lower 48 states, and both the Endangered Species Act and common sense tells us we can’t ignore that.”

The president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle, said courts “have now put a stop to the war on wolves in the Great Lakes. It’s time for Congress and state and federal wildlife management agencies to recognize that wolves provide an enormous range of ecological and economic services to the regions where they live, and do it for free.”

But the victory could be short lived. Congressional Republicans are currently drafting laws to amend the Endangered Species Act in an effort to roll back its protections.

The aim, they say, is to remove animals from the list faster than the current pace so that rules protecting them won’t hamper ranching and economic development. Opponents argue that the slow pace is often a result of noncompliance by states and ever-expanding encroachment by human development on animal habitats.

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