Gray Wolves Lose Protections Under Endangered Species Act

Environmentalists argue the decision is premature.

Gray wolf
Gray wolves once had nearly vanished from most of the U.S. Copyright Michael Cummings / Getty Images

Gray wolves will no longer be protected under the Endangered Species Act in most of the U.S., federal officials announced this week.

“After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery," Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement.

The move was criticized by wildlife advocacy groups and environmentalists who vowed to challenge the decision.

“Stripping protections for gray wolves is premature and reckless," said Defenders of Wildlife President and CEO, Jamie Rappaport Clark, in a statement. "Gray wolves occupy only a fraction of their former range and need continued federal protection to fully recover. We will be taking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court to defend this iconic species.”

The new rule will officially publish next week, and go into effect 60 days after that. Then, states and tribes will assume control of gray wolves accept for Mexican wolves, a subspecies that will remain protected under the Endangered Species Act.

The gray wolf was named an endangered species in 1974 after being nearly eliminated in the mainland U.S. With federal protection and a reintroduction program using Canadian wolves, the species has rebounded in the Northern Rockies and the Western Great Lakes.

But as Treehugger's Russell McLendon writes:

"In fact, some say wolves have rebounded a little too well. While they still make up just 2 percent of their former population in the Lower 48 states, they've nonetheless outgrown much of the land they were given."

The Fight for Delisting

Over the years, there has been a back and forth between conservation groups and the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) over whether the gray wolf should be delisted as an endangered species. The last attempt was under the Obama administration, but was met with fierce opposition and was later withdrawn.

There was also a lot of opposition to the recent delisting of the gray wolf, with more than 837,000 comments noted online. According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the organization submitted more than 1.8 million comments opposing the rule.

Currently, the gray wolf population in the lower 48 states is around 6,000 animals primarily in western Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains, according to the FWS.

The gray wolf is listed as a species of least concern with a stable population by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. But the group does not list a population estimate, saying instead, "Because of the diversity in climate, topography, vegetation, human settlement and development of wolf range, wolf populations in various parts of the original range vary from extinct to relatively pristine." 

While the federal government is removing protections, at least one state is hoping to add them. There is currently a question on the ballot in Colorado about a gray wolf recovery program, that would reintroduce the animal in the state. The proposal would reintroduce and manage gray wolves by the end of 2023.

"The delisting decision jeopardizes the fragile progress wolves have made after being intensely persecuted for decades, and exposes still-vulnerable populations to extreme trophy hunting seasons designed to rapidly drive down their numbers," Amanda Wight, Program Manager of Wildlife Protection for the Humane Society of the United States, tells Treehugger.

"Wolves remain absent from about 70% of currently suitable habitat in the lower 48, and this rule could have dire consequences for their future. To place the fate of wolves in the hands of states who have repeatedly shown a propensity to cater to trophy hunters, trappers, and the agribusiness lobby is simply reckless.”