In recent months, conservative lawmakers have begun ramping up efforts to reform the Endangered Species Act, suggesting that the law infringes on states’ and landowners’ rights and presents an economic burden by limiting commercial development and other industrial activities. These conversations have arisen much to the dismay of environmentalists, who argue that many of the proposed changes would weaken the law’s ability to protect threatened species.
Wolves have taken a front seat in many of these recent discussions. Hunted nearly to the point of extinction in the mid-20th century, largely as a result of extermination programs supported both states and the federal government, the wolf was first added to the endangered species list nearly 40 years ago.
Because of the species’ history, state management plans that allow the hunting of wolves — especially at the urging of livestock owners — are often highly controversial among environmentalists (a recent Trump administration decision to revoke certain restrictions on wolf hunting in Alaska is one of the latest examples).
“The issue about wolves mostly comes down to whether we hunt them or whether we allow them to continue to live on the landscape,” said Rebecca Riley, a senior attorney for the land and wildlife program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“There’s no question that Republicans in Congress are trying to gut the Endangered Species Act,” Riley said. “They’ve been targeting the Endangered Species Act for years. And as we’ve already seen, they continue to do so in this Congress, and we expect that to continue.”
Those in favor of ESA reform have cited wolves as an example of the federal government intruding on state management plans, and those in support of the status quo argue that the gray wolf’s remarkable recovery over the last few decades is proof that the law works in its current form.
Gray Wolf Revival
Last week, wolves escaped one such attack when gray wolves won a major victory in court when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled against an Interior Department decision to remove federal protections for a population of gray wolves across nine states.
The decision marked the end of a bitter six-year battle involving conservationists, landowners, state governments, and federal regulators. In 2011, the Interior Department decided to remove a segment of wolves in the western Great Lakes region, largely in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, from the Endangered Species Act. Environmental groups led by the Humane Society of the United States sued, and in 2014 a lower court ruled against the delisting decision. The appellate court upheld that decision last week, and the Great Lakes wolves will stay on the endangered species list — for now.
Setting An Example
The highly contentious case of the Great Lakes wolves is one prime example in which government officials asserted that the population was sufficiently recovered as to no longer need federal protection, and environmental groups argued that the move wasn’t based on sound science. In its decision, the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the government can’t remove protections over a single segment of wolves without reviewing its effect on the entire species as a whole.
But some lawmakers have criticized the continued battles over wolf protections as an example of the Endangered Species Act trampling the rights of state governments and landowners.
Back in February, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works held a hearing on the “modernization of the Endangered Species Act,” during which Republican lawmakers heavily criticized what they saw as the law’s failures. Witnesses invited to testify at the hearing included James Holte, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, who was asked to speak specifically about wolves, and David Freudenthal, a former governor of Wyoming, who referenced the gray wolf in his written testimony as an example of the federal government encroaching on state management goals.
In his own written testimony, Holte suggested that the wolf’s continued presence on the Endangered Species list is evidence that the law “prioritizes species listings over actual recovery and habitat conservation.”
Since the hearing, members of Congress have renewed their efforts to push through legislation targeting the Endangered Species Act, and wolves are one of the specific animals in the crosshairs.
Just a few weeks ago, while the court’s decision on the Great Lakes wolves was still pending, lawmakers attempted to ensure their delisting by introducing bills in both the House and the Senate that would end Endangered Species Act protection for wolves in both the Great Lakes region and in Wyoming and would also prevent judicial review of the decision.
The bills are an attempt at an unusual type of legislation known as a “legislative delisting.” Typically, the Interior Department is responsible for deciding to remove a species from the Endangered Species list.
The first time Congress ever stepped in to perform a legislative delisting was in 2011 — also targeting wolves. The move resulted in the delisting of wolves in Idaho, Montana and parts of Utah, Washington, and Oregon.
“Since then, we’ve since a huge uptick in the sheer number of legislative attacks on the ESA,” said Nora Apter, a legislative advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I think it’s shown legislators that they are able to push through these seemingly one-off issues.”
Indeed, the newly proposed legislation was discussed last month at hearings in both chambers of Congress alongside a handful of other bills targeting various aspects of the Endangered Species Act. One, for instance, would remove protections for non-native species, while another would allow the Interior Department to preclude certain species from being listed based on the costs incurred by protecting them.
An Ongoing Controversy
Wolf management and recovery has been highly contentious since it was first listed as endangered in 1974, and wolves aside from the gray wolf have been the subjects of their own ongoing conservation battles, many of them also rooted in fundamental conflicts over the reach of the Endangered Species Act.
In the Southwest, the Fish and Wildlife Service has recently released an updated draft management plan for the Mexican gray wolf, an endangered subspecies hunted nearly to extinction in the early 20th century. There are currently just over 100 wild Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona.
Mexican wolf recovery efforts — like efforts to protect the gray wolf — have been met with severe pushback from landowners in the Southwest, who are concerned about the possibility of predation on livestock. And state governments have gotten involved in the fray recently as well. Last year, New Mexico sued the federal government for releasing two Mexican wolf pups into the wild without a state permit, although a court later ruled against the state.
The new draft management plan has garnered criticism from both sides of the fence, with livestock owners pushing back against more population growth and environmentalists arguing that the plan is still too limited.
Similar issues have arisen in recent years in the Southeast, where a separate, highly endangered wolf species known as the red wolf is also struggling to recover. Only one wild red wolf population exists in eastern North Carolina, consisting of about 50 wolves.
In the past, the red wolf has also been the center of disagreements between landowners and conservationists. In recent years, Fish and Wildlife began authorizing private landowners to shoot red wolves on their own property, although a U.S. District Court has recently barred it from continuing to do so.
The wolf remains an ongoing topic of conversation, both in its own right and as part of the growing discussion about the future of the Endangered Species Act. While the species may have won an important victory in court last week, the recent conservative push for reform means the road ahead of it may be more uncertain than before.