The Interior Department Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has proposed to “delist” the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) under the Endangered Species Act (that is, to remove it from the list of endangered or threatened species subject to federal protection under that Act) in the lower 48 United States.  In order to be considered, comments must be received by the FWS or postmarked no later than 11:59 PM Eastern Time on July 15, 2019.

The Basics:
  •    Gray wolves were once widespread in the United States, with populations spread across the contiguous United States (the “lower 48”).  Subsequent decline of the species resulted primarily from targeted elimination by humans. By the mid-20th century, a government-funded extermination program pushed gray wolves to the brink of extinction; and the species was all but eliminated from the lower 48 United States, with the exception of the deep woods of Minnesota.
  •    On passage of the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s, gray wolves throughout the lower 48 were added to the protected list of species classified as endangered or threatened. FWS focused on recovering three isolated populations of gray wolves: one in the Midwest (the Western Great Lakes Region), one in the Northern Rockies, and one in the Southwest.  No serious efforts were made to recover the species in the entirety, or even any significant part, of the species’ historical range.
  •    The Gray Wolf’s recovery in some parts of the Northern Rockies and upper Great Lakes region has been quite successful, in large part due to its protected status under the Endangered Species Act.
  •    Once those recovering wolf populations began reaching a certain size, the FWS tried to remove endangered species protections from each of the individual populations separately rather than address the wolf population in the lower 48 (i.e., the entire listed entity) as a whole. This policy gave rise to numerous legal challenges and court rulings, including a relatively recent court decision that found FWS’ attempt to delist the midwestern population of gray wolves to be invalid.
  •    The presently proposed action would delist, and thereby eliminate the federally protected status of, the Gray Wolf in the entire lower 48 United States.
  •    Delisting would represent a determination by the FWS that the Grey Wolf is no longer in danger of extinction “throughout all or a significant portion of [its] range” and is not likely to become so endangered in the foreseeable future.
  •    The FWS regards the Gray Wolf to be no longer endangered or threatened with endangerment based on the present, seemingly stable status of a wolf population in Minnesota, and one additional population of at least 100 wolves in the Wisconsin-Michigan area of the Great Lakes Region.
  •    Wildlife advocates believe that the result of delisting will be to un-do the progress that has been made in Gray Wolf recovery over the past several decades; and that the step is being proposed to appease ranchers, farmers, and trophy-hunters rather than in the legitimate exercise of discretion and authority under the Endangered Species Act.
  •    Many ranchers and farmers in areas where the Gray Wolf population has recovered support the proposed delisting, because it will better enable them to protect their livestock by killing dangerous predators.
  •    Preservation of Gray Wolves not only benefits that species, but also has positive effects on the broader ecological system. The interaction of recovered Gray Wolf populations with prey has been found to have effects such as regeneration of stream-bed vegetation, return of beavers and song-birds to stream habitat, and increases in  the survival rates of pronghorn fawn due to lowered numbers of coyote.
  •    The States of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan each have wolf management plans that currently offer the animals some level of protection under State Law (for example, by requiring licenses for hunting or killing of gray wolves).
Summary of the Proposed Agency Action :

The proposed delisting of the Gray Wolf would deny that species classification as either endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) anywhere in the lower 48 United States — that is, both in the very few regions where recovery of the species has made significant progress, and in parts of the country where little or no recovery has occurred, despite the continued existence of suitable habitat to support the species.  The action would not affect the classification of the separate, Mexican wolf subspecies as endangered.

Inclusion on the endangered species list affords a species federal protection and assistance that goes well beyond prohibitions on killing the animal.  The listing of a species as endangered makes it illegal for any person under U.S. jurisdiction to “take” that species—meaning to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, collect, or attempt to do any of these things. It is also illegal to import, export, or transport and sell endangered species in interstate or foreign commerce. Similar prohibitions may extend to species listed as threatened under the ESA.

In addition to these prohibitions, responsible federal agencies engage in numerous activities to manage species listed under the ESA such as: designating critical habitat for the conservation of the species; monitoring and evaluating species’ status; developing and implementing recovery plans for listed species; consulting on federal actions that may affect a listed species, or its designated critical habitat, to minimize possible adverse effects; providing grants to states and grants to tribes for species conservation; entering into bilateral and multilateral agreements with other nations to encourage conservation of listed species; investigating violations of the ESA; cooperating with non-federal partners to develop conservation plans, safe harbor agreements, and candidate conservation agreements with assurances for the long-term conservation of species; authorizing research to learn more about protected species; and designating experimental populations of listed species to further the conservation and recovery of those species.  The proposed delisting of the Gray Wolf would therefore mean the FWS would no longer engage in these activities to support further Gray Wolf recovery in the United States.

The present proposal, if made final, would revise FWS regulations by removing the two existing C. lupus listed entities from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. It would also remove from the Code of Federal Regulations certain “special rules” that currently specify protections for the Gray Wolf in Minnesota. In addition, the proposal would eliminate the designation of critical habitat for gray wolves in Minnesota and on Isle Royale, Michigan.

The Agency’s Justification for its Proposed Action:

According to the FWS, there is a sufficiently large and stable population of gray wolves in the Great Lakes Region (specifically in Minnesota and to a lesser degree in Wisconsin and Michigan) to ensure the continued viability of the species in the foreseeable future; and more limited, existing populations in the West Coast States (Washington, Oregon, and California) that may survive without future federal protection. The Agency’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking sets out an analysis of various factors in support of these conclusions, including availability of prey and suitable habitat, as well as adequacy of present State wildlife management plans.

Additional Information and Resources :

The Endangered Species Act defines an “endangered species” as any species that is “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range,” and a “threatened species” as any species that is “likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”  A determination that neither of these circumstances exists must be made in order to delist a species, or remove if from the endangered or threatened list. (An endangered species can also be “down-listed”  from endangered to threatened status.)

In order to apply the standards for endangered or threatened status, therefore, FWS must determine what constitutes “all or a significant portion of [a species’] range.”  The “range” of a species is the area in which members of the species can be found during their lifetimes, including areas where individuals or communities may migrate or hibernate. When FWS makes a listing or delisting decision, it considers a species’ relevant “range” to consist of the areas where individuals or communities of the species can be found at the time of the decision. The past or “historical” range of the species is not taken into account.

Applying this interpretation of the Gray Wolf’s present-day range, FWS is able to rationalize removal of endangered species protection from the species based on little more than the fact that gray wolf populations in Minnesota, and to a much lesser degree in Michigan and Wisconsin, appear stable for the time being.  Wildlife advocates and environmentalists argue that gray wolves cannot be regarded to have achieved a successful “recovery” when they remain absent from the vast majority of regions of the country in which they used to thrive — and in which substantial areas of suitable habitat for gray wolves continue to exist.  However, the Government, by narrowly focusing species recovery efforts in only a very few States, has effectively shrunk the relevant range of the Gray Wolf to a fraction of its prior range  — making a delisting decision easier to support, because there is now so little “range” of the animal outside the Upper Great Lakes Region that those other areas can be argued not to constitute a “significant portion” of the present range.   Thus, the Agency can now rationalize a determination that the species is neither in danger of extinction nor likely to be in such danger in the foreseeable future in all or a significant portion of its range, as long as the population in Minnesota and the smaller population in the Wisconsin/Michigan area appear stable.  The range of the species has become so limited that these Great Lakes Region populations represent a disproportionate segment of that range; and the remaining areas where gray wolves may still be found but are in danger of being eliminated are not regarded to constitute a “significant portion” of the species’ present range.

If you wish to read the full explanation by FWS for its delisting proposal, the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking sets it out in detail.  In addition, there are various articles and materials accessible online that may be helpful in understanding the issues raised by this proposal.  An informative article about Gray Wolves and their endangered status appears on the website of the Center for Biological Diversity. That organization has also prepared a brief and helpful Gray Wolf Factsheet that is available online; and a summary of information based on scientific studies of the species can be found in a document entitled The Science of Sound Wolf Management (prepared by the Endangered Species Coalition).  An informative and balanced article — setting out pros and cons to the proposed delisting — appears on the website of the International Wolf Center.  Other articles that recount the history of the Gray Wolf’s status under the Endangered Species Act, and that are generally critical of the FWS proposal, have been posted on the websites of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Endangered Species Coalition. News reports published by Roll Call and in the Missoula Current recount the views of parties both in favor of and opposed to the proposed delisting of the Gray Wolf.

 

If you are ready to comment on the proposed delisting of the Gray Wolf :

The easiest means is to go to the Comment Page for this topic on the Government’s eRulemaking website, type you comments into the space provided for that purpose, and follow the other instructions for submission on that page.

Alternatively, you can submit comments in hard-copy letter form by sending mail or making a hand-delivery to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. FWS-HQ-ES-2018-0097; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Headquarters, MS: BPHC, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041-3803.

All comments, irrespective of the means of submission, must be received by the FWS or postmarked by no later than 11:59 PM Eastern Time on July 15, 2019, in order to be considered.