Conservation Groups Launch Legal Challenge After Feds Decide Against Restoring Wolf Protections

Federal wildlife managers will adopt a first-of-its-kind National Recovery Plan to support the conservation of wolves in the northern Rockies, but environmental groups are mounting a legal challenge after the agency rejected a petition to relist the species under the Endangered Species Act

By Tristan Scott
A wolf print along the bank of the Middle Fork Flathead River. Beacon file photo

Ten conservation and wildlife advocacy groups on Wednesday notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) of their plans to sue the agency over its recent denial of a petition to restore protections to gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) last week denied a listing petition from an alliance of more than 70 conservation groups seeking to restore the protections, which they framed as necessary as some western states expand wolf hunting and trapping opportunities. Although federal wildlife managers said the decision follows “a path to support a long-term and durable approach to the conservation of gray wolves,” and pledged to adopt a first-of-its-kind National Recovery Plan, the conservation groups said at the time they were considering a legal challenge.

Today, the groups took the first step toward mounting that challenge when they filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue, which says the FWS determination published in the Federal Register “ignores obvious threats to the species, runs contrary to the best available science and relies on flawed population models for its determination.

“The current killing regimes in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming put wolves at obvious risk of extinction in the foreseeable future, and this core population is key to wolf survival in the West,” said Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist and executive director of Western Watersheds Project. “Even if the states’ population estimates were defensible–and they aren’t, according to recent scientific analyses–the feds are underestimating the extinction agendas of anti-wolf state governments and the small and tentative state of recovering wolf populations elsewhere in the West.” 

The latest data compiled at the end of 2022 revealed there are approximately 2,797 wolves distributed across at least 286 packs in seven states in the western U.S., according to FWS, with just under 1,100 wolves in Montana, or about 181 packs. Total wolf numbers peaked in Montana with 188 packs and 1,259 wolves in 2011, which is the same year that Congress stripped ESA protections from the species, allowing Montana to begin harvest management.

The coalition of wildlife conservation groups submitted a 52-page emergency petition to restore federal protections on May 26, 2021, shortly after state legislatures in Montana and Idaho passed new, more aggressive laws aimed at reducing wolf populations, with the intent of curbing livestock conflicts and deer and elk predation.

In Montana in 2021, the state’s Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 3-2 to increase wolf harvests by allowing neck snaring and trap baiting statewide, as well as night hunting on private land and other changes to the season. The vote followed direction from the 2021 Legislature requiring state agencies to decrease wolf numbers and legalize new hunting measures to do so. Testimony on behalf of the suite of bills targeting wolves cited depressed elk numbers and diminishing rates of hunter success in wolf-heavy areas of the state, including northwest Montana.

Although wildlife biologists have acknowledged that wolves have an impact on deer and elk populations, especially in predator-rich environments like northwest Montana, where wolf population densities are estimated to be highest, they note that there are other factors at play on the landscape. For example, while approximately 480 wolves roam the land managed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) in Region 1, an area spanning northwest Montana that includes the Flathead Valley, about 1,300 mountain lions are hunting the same landscape.

“It’s beyond frustrating that federal officials are harming wolf recovery by denying wolves in the northern Rockies the powerful federal protections they deserve,” said Andrea Zaccardi, carnivore conservation legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a prepared statement. “Unlike the Fish and Wildlife Service, we refuse to sanction the annual slaughter of hundreds of wolves. Allowing unlimited wolf killing sabotages decades of recovery efforts in the northern Rockies, as well as those in neighboring West Coast and southern Rockies states.”

According to FWP’s Montana Wolf Harvest dashboard, Montana hunters and trappers killed 258 wolves during the 2022 harvest season and have already killed nearly 242 wolves in the 2023 harvest season, which runs until March 15. That includes 101 wolves in FWP’s Region 1, where the quota is 131; 73 wolves in Region 2, where the quota is 104; 42 wolves in Region 3, where the quota is 52; and 15 wolves in Region 4, where the quota is 15 and the closure status is now pending. Harvest quotas have already been met in Regions 5, 6 and 7, prompting the season’s closure. The hunting season for wolves was also closed in Wildlife Management Unit 313, where the quota of six wolves was met.

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