A gray wolf
The Gray Wolf, being a keystone predator, is an integral component of the ecosystems to which it typically belongs. The wide range of habitats in which wolves can thrive reflects their adaptability as a species, and includes temperate forests, mountains, tundra, taiga, and grasslands. Photo credit: John and Karen Hollingsworth/USFWS

A fed­er­al judge, revers­ing a Trump admin­is­tra­tion deci­sion, has restored pro­tec­tion of the gray wolf (“can­is lupus”) under the Endan­gered Species Act over much of the low­er forty-eight states includ­ing Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon and California.

U.S. Dis­trict Judge Jef­frey Lee ruled that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Ser­vice delist­ed the wolf based on analy­sis of just two core wolf pop­u­la­tions and failed to pro­vide a rea­son­able inter­pre­ta­tion of the “sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of its range” standard.”

The judge’s rul­ing pro­tects wolves in the Great Lakes Region, West Coast states and the South­ern Rockies.

It does not apply to Ida­ho, Mon­tana and Wyoming, where state offi­cials have enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly encour­aged the “culling” of wolf populations.

After removal of wolves from the Endan­gered Species list, con­tro­ver­sy revolved over such hap­pen­ings as a “cull” in Wis­con­sin last year in which 200 wolves were killed in less than 60 hours. The state had set a quo­ta of 119 kills.

Wolves are admit­ted­ly sav­age hunters, but sav­agery has often applied to two-legged crea­tures that hunt them. A fam­i­ly of Methow Val­ley ranch­ers was con­vict­ed of killing wolves and then try­ing to ship bloody pelts to an address in Alber­ta. Near­ly twen­ty wolves have been killed this sea­son when they wan­dered out­side bound­aries of Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park.

Vis­i­tors to Denali Nation­al Park in Alas­ka have long watched wolves in the Tok­lat Val­ley along the park road. But there is a dent in the park’s bound­ary, north of the road, down which hunters have trav­eled and slaugh­tered Tok­lat wolves.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Ser­vice has under­tak­en a study of low­er forty-eight wolves – cen­tered in states not cov­ered by Judge Lee’s rul­ing – because “increased human caused mor­tal­i­ty in Ida­ho and Mon­tana may pose a threat to wolves in those states.”

Hunt­ing groups have decried Lee’s rul­ing as that of “an activist judge”. He was nom­i­nat­ed to the fed­er­al bench by Pres­i­dent George W. Bush in 2002.

Kyle Weaver, CEO of the Rocky Moun­tain Elk Foun­da­tion, has claimed the wolf pop­u­la­tion across Amer­i­ca is “sta­ble and growing.”

Not so, argued such envi­ron­men­tal groups as Earth­jus­tice, the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diver­si­ty, Defend­ers of Wildlife and the Humane Society.

Suing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice, they argued in par­tic­u­lar that recov­ery of “West Coast wolves” would be hin­dered by delisting.

A gray wolf
A gray wolf, pho­tographed by dal­liedee (Repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

“I’m relieved that the court set things right but sad­dened that hun­dreds of wolves suf­fered and died under this ille­gal delist­ing rule: It will take years to undo that dam­age to wolf pop­u­la­tions,” said Col­lette Adkins of the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diversity.

Wolves were large­ly exter­mi­nat­ed in the “low­er 48” ear­ly in the 20th Cen­tu­ry, sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly elim­i­nat­ed even in Yel­low­stone Park. Only about 1,000 remained, main­ly in the Bound­ary Waters region of Min­neso­ta, when pro­tec­tion was extend­ed under the 1973 Endan­gered Species Act.

Wolves began to move south from Cana­da into the Rock­ies and Cas­cades in the 1970’s. “Reen­try points” were the Flat­head Val­ley in Mon­tana and the Skag­it Riv­er in Washington.

The reap­pear­ance of can­is lupus set up con­fronta­tions between some ranch­ers and con­ser­va­tion groups. USFWS hear­ings fea­tured “howl ins” by wolf sup­port­ers, with ranch­ers tes­ti­fy­ing to the bru­tal deaths of their sheep. “Wolves eat sheep,” famed con­ser­va­tion writer Ed Abbey wrote in praise of can­is lupus..

The ear­li­est wolf return to Wash­ing­ton was the sight­ing of a wolf saun­ter­ing through a play­ground at the north end of Ross Lake in Cana­da. A den was sub­se­quent­ly dis­cov­ered on slopes of Hozomeen Moun­tain, just south of the bor­der. The repop­u­la­tion has led to packs in the Chelan-Saw­tooth Wilder­ness Area, and in the west fork-Tean­away Riv­er north of Cle Elum.

The pro­tec­tion of wolves in Wash­ing­ton has been split by a high­way. West of U.S. 97, which runs north-south through Cen­tral Wash­ing­ton, wolves are cov­ered under the Endan­gered Species Act. Until Judge Lee’s rul­ing, how­ev­er, the state had juris­dic­tion east of the high­way. State hunters have exter­mi­nat­ed wolf packs in response to ranch­ers in north­east Washington’s Fer­ry County.

Wolf recov­ery was con­tro­ver­sial even in Yel­low­stone Park. After Repub­li­cans recap­tured con­trol of Con­gress in 1994, the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion wor­ried that rein­tro­duc­tion of can­is lupus would be blocked by leg­is­la­tion. U.S. Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Bruce Bab­bitt helped set loose 31 ani­mals in the nation­al park.

The wolves are since cred­it­ed with a big role in restor­ing the Yel­low­stone Ecosys­tem, con­trol­ling ungu­late pop­u­la­tions, in turn restor­ing such veg­e­ta­tion as juniper trees over­grazed by elk.

Vis­i­tors in the north­east cor­ner of the park, equipped with binoc­u­lars, could watch wolves hunt from the trail behind Soda Butte.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

Adjacent posts