NRDC Sues Feds for Failure to Protect Gray Wolves During Biodiversity Crisis

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service unlawfully removed protections for gray wolves across the country.
A gray wolf resting in the snow in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Credit: Buck Shreck/Getty Images

VICTORY: On February 10, 2022, a U.S. District Court sided with NRDC and our partners and returned gray wolves to the list of endangered and threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. While the court’s decision restores critical protections for wolves across much of the country, “in the Northern Rockies, wolves continue to be targeted by aggressive state hunting and trapping regulations, explains Sylvia Fallon, senior director for wildlife at NRDC. “The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service should step in with protections for all wolves across the Lower 48 while developing a plan to ensure the longterm survival of this species.

The new delisting rule from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service unlawfully removes protections for gray wolves across the country.

Today, NRDC filed a lawsuit to challenge the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (FWS) rule removing gray wolves from the national list of endangered and threatened species. This rule not only poses an immediate risk to the viability of gray wolves in the United States, but it also follows a long history of attempts to reduce Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for this species.

Gray wolves are an iconic species that was nearly decimated in the United States due to widespread predator control programs and habitat and prey loss. Since the 1970s, slowly and with the protection of the ESA, wolves began to recover. However, after repeated failed attempts to reduce or eliminate protections for wolves over the last 20 years, the new delisting rule from FWS unlawfully removes protections for gray wolves across the United States. This nationwide delisting would stop wolf recovery in its tracks, particularly in areas where wolves have only begun to regain their historical footing.

NRDC’s lawsuit aims to restore ESA protections for gray wolves to ensure this species can remain a viable part of our nation’s ecosystem. The lawsuit will further demonstrate the missteps of FWS in finalizing its delisting rule and will ask the court to vacate the rule to ensure continued federal protection for wolves. There is renewed hope that the incoming Biden administration may share NRDC’s concern with the delisting rule. As recently as Wednesday, January 20, the Biden transition team issued a list of agency actions that the new administration plans to immediately review. This list includes the gray wolf delisting rule that we are challenging in this lawsuit.

The delisting rule violates the ESA and the Administrative Procedure Act because it arbitrarily lumps gray wolves across the country together and justifies their delisting based on their recovery in only one region, the Great Lakes. Moreover, the agency excluded large portions of gray wolves’ current and historical range from its analysis in justifying the rule. This misleading premise risks the viability of gray wolf populations nationwide, including in the Central Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Coast, and the Northeast.

While there are about 4,200 gray wolves across the Great Lakes (Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin) and 1,500 to 2,000 in the Northern Rockies ( Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming), gray wolves are difficult to find in other parts of the United States. There are 54 wolves and seven established wolf packs in western portions of California, Oregon, and Washington. Recently, Colorado Parks & Wildlife confirmed that a pack of six wolves had been sighted in Colorado.

This final rule follows a history of largely unsuccessful attempts by FWS to delist gray wolves in the last two decades. NRDC submitted comments on the proposal to delist wolves in July 2019, noting the arbitrary combination of distinct wolf populations by FWS in their assessment of gray wolves in the United States. We urged FWS to instead develop a national wolf recovery plan to set recovery goals for gray wolves. FWS largely ignored our comments and pushed forward with its delisting rule, requiring NRDC to take today’s legal action.

Until the Biden administration reaches a conclusion, NRDC must and will continue to push forward in court to ensure we secure federal protections for gray wolves. The fight to protect the gray wolf certainly does not end with this lawsuit. Measures, such as a national recovery plan, must be developed and implemented by the federal government in order to support the recovery of the gray wolf. Too often, gray wolves are perceived as a threatening creature, perpetuated by stories like Little Red Riding Hood and other fears about carnivorous predators. Despite that perception, gray wolves are an essential part of our country’s ecosystem and would face tremendous risks in the absence of ESA protections.

With this lawsuit, we will call on the courts to push the FWS to reverse course and reinstate protection for gray wolves until they are truly recovered, nationwide.

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