One Year Since Court Restored ESA Protections for Wolves

Without these protections, wolf recovery could be stopped dead in its tracks—or even reversed.

Gray wolves running in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming


Mark Miller/Getty Images

One year ago today, a U.S. District Court restored Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for gray wolves, after NRDC and conservation partners filed lawsuits in January 2021 over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) unlawful removal of gray wolves from the list of endangered and threatened species. This ruling protected wolves across 44 states (not including wolves in the Northern Rockies) from many of the most significant threats they would have faced this past year under state management—especially state-sponsored public hunting and trapping.

Without these protections, wolf recovery could be stopped dead in its tracks—or even reversed—as we have seen happen when states with authority over wolf management work to cut populations down through aggressive measures. For example, during Wisconsin’s first wolf hunt after the 2021 delisting, hunters killed 218 wolves in just three days—nearly 100 animals over the state-set hunting quota and an estimated 20 percent of the state’s wolf population. Giving wolves a chance at real recovery means allowing them to re-establish sustainable populations in remaining suitable habitat. As we reflect on the one-year anniversary of the court decision to restore the ESA listing for wolves, we are revisiting 5 newsworthy stories from the past year about wolves reclaiming lost ground, and the challenges they continue to face:

1. After beating all odds by surviving a catastrophic wildfire season in northern California, two of California's three wolf packs went on to reproduce successfully, adding around a dozen total pups to the state’s population. One of these packs, known as the Whaleback Pack, had a litter of eight pups last year—representing the largest known litter of wolf pups in the state in over 100 years. The other pack, called the Lassen Pack, had five pups, and has successfully reproduced each year since it formed in 2017. The first breeding male of the Lassen pack was a descendant of the famous Oregon wolf known as Journey, or OR-7, who was the first wild wolf to step foot in California in 87 years and who became widely known and admired for his incredible adventure across California and his importance to wolf recovery. The survival and growth of these packs is critical to recovering wolves in the Golden State. 

2. Researchers documented a lone wolf that traveled 4,200 miles in 18 months, moving from Michigan through Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota, then onto Ontario and Manitoba, Canada. Thanks to a GPS collar, managers were able to track this wolf’s impressive ramble as he crossed state and international borders, sometimes looping back on his own track. As a result of this tracking, our understanding of wolf movements and dispersal, as well as landscape connectivity, are enhanced. While federal protections may have helped this wolf move more safely throughout the Great Lakes region, his journey came to an unfortunate end when he was killed legally by a hunter in Manitoba.

3. Colorado is making progress towards releasing wolves in the western part of the state in accordance with Proposition 114—which voters passed in 2020—directing the state wildlife agency to restore wolves to Colorado by the end of 2023. In addition, mounting evidence suggests a second wolf pack is eking out a living in the northern part of the state. Colorado has an incredible opportunity to create a new model for re-wilding a landscape by bringing back this iconic species.  

A radio collared wolf

4. A DNA analysis confirmed that an animal killed by a hunter in New York was a gray wolf—one of only a small handful of wolves that have been reported in New York in recent decades. While this wolf’s life was sadly ended by a coyote hunter, the analysis provides critical evidence that wolves are dispersing into the region— and could recolonize if given the chance. Based on this event, a coalition of state and national groups are urging New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation to do more to protect the few wolves that find their way to the state and to strictly limit the possibilities for additional accidental killing of wolves by coyote hunters.

5. A groundbreaking new study shows the impact of human-caused mortality on wolf packs that spend much of their time in U.S. national parks, such as Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Voyageurs, or Denali. This research is the first of its kind to show the disruption and instability that hunting and trapping creates in the social structure and persistence of wolf packs. The loss of a leader is especially devastating to the wolf family unit. This research marks a new direction for understanding highly social animals such as wolves, making it clear that it is not enough to only consider population-level impacts when making management decisions. Managers and policy makers should follow this shift to account for the importance of social dynamics, pack stability and cooperative behavior in key wolf management decisions.

As these stories demonstrate, wolves are capable of amazing feats of survival and recovery when we give them a fighting chance, and we still have much to learn about what it’s like to be a wolf. One thing is clear: being a wolf in this human-dominated landscape is dangerous. The court decision reinstating ESA protections was a critical step to giving wolves a chance at true, lasting recovery. NRDC is committed to working on multiple fronts to protect a future where this iconic species can thrive.

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