Judge Restores Federal Protections for Gray Wolves in 44 States

The move is heralded as a conservation success but faces criticism from hunters and ranchers

A large beige-colored gray wolf standing on a mound of snow looking at the camera
When gray wolves were removed from Endangered Species List 15 months ago, hunting of the species dramatically increased Raimund Linke via Getty Images

Federal protection for gray wolves has been restored in most of the lower 48 United States. The decision to re-list gray wolves is being hailed as a major conservation victory for the species, which is frequently embroiled in controversy between scientists, hunters and ranchers.

In late 2020, the Trump administration removed gray wolves from the endangered list and stripped their legal protections, citing “the successful recovery of the gray wolf.” The decision was reversed last Thursday by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White, who ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "failed to adequately analyze and consider the impacts of partial delisting and of historical range loss on the already-listed species.”

Attorneys for the Biden administration defended the 2020 decision to remove protections for gray wolves, arguing the species’ populations were resilient enough to recover from hunting, Matthew Brown and John Flesher report for the Associated Press. The Biden administration now has 60 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling.

“Wolves need federal protection, period,” says Kristen Boyles, an attorney at Earthjustice, says to Catrin Einhorn of the New York Times. “The Fish and Wildlife Service should be ashamed of defending the gray wolf delisting.”

The recent ruling protects wolves in 44 of the lower 48 states but does not directly impact wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming as well as portions of several nearby states.

When the animals lost federal protection just 15 months ago, wolf hunting spiked in some states.

In Montana, hunters killed 24 Yellowstone gray wolves that roamed outside of their protected habitat inside the national park, where 90 individuals remain. An entire pack is expected to be "elliminated." It is the biggest loss Yellowstone has faced since wolves were reintroduced to the park 25 years ago. At least 215 wolves have been killed so far in Montana, where the hunting quota is set at 450 wolves. An estimated 1,100 wolves in total live in the state.

Wisconsin had to end its wolf hunting season early in Spring 2021 after more than 200 wolves were killed in less than 60 hours, far surpassing the state’s quota of 119. As a result of overhunting by non-indigenous people, local Ojibwe tribes decided not to fill their tribal hunting quota for gray wolves, which have a sacred place in their culture.

Some hunters and farmers are angered over the recent ruling, noting killing gray wolves reduces occasional attacks on livestock.

"We are disappointed that an activist judge from California decided to tell farmers, ranchers, and anyone who supports a balanced ecosystem with common-sense predator management that he knows better than them," says Luke Hilgemann of the hunting advocacy group Hunter Nation in a statement.

Gray wolves once roamed across North American deserts, grasslands, and forests, but by the 1950s, overhunting, habitat loss, and poisoning by humans had nearly wiped out the species. The wolves were given protections in 1973 under the Endangered Species Act, and have since recovered to around 5,000 individuals in the lower 48 states. 

“Wolves absolutely do not fit the definition of a recovered species,” says John Vucetich, who studies animal ecology at Michigan Technological University, to Vox’s Benji Jones. “A species isn’t considered endangered only if it’s at imminent risk of extinction. It’s about when have humans done enough damage to a species that corrective action is required.”