Science & Environment

Gray wolf to get its day in court after removal from endangered species list

By Bradley W. Parks (OPB)
Bend, Ore. Jan. 14, 2021 9:24 p.m.

The buzzer-beating removal of Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf has led to multiple lawsuits against the Trump administration.

A wolf from the Wapiti Lake pack stands by a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo., Jan. 24, 2018.

A wolf from the Wapiti Lake pack stands by a hot spring in Yellowstone National Park, Wyo., Jan. 24, 2018.

Jacob W. Frank / National Parks Service

Environmental groups have filed a flurry of lawsuits against the Trump administration over its removal of Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially removed the wolf from the endangered species list last week. The rule applies to all gray wolves in the lower 48 states, except for experimental packs of Mexican gray wolves living in the American Southwest.

The Fish and Wildlife Service argues that gray wolves do not, by law, constitute a species and thus must be removed from the endangered species list. The lawsuits allege the administration acted prematurely and ignored the best available science in its decision.

“It was laughable on its face when we saw that argument, and we were kind of blown away that they made it,” said Nick Cady, legal director for Cascadia Wildlands, which is a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits.

Related: When have gray wolves actually recovered?

In its final rule, the Fish and Wildlife Service argues that it was only focused on protecting gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes regions all along; any wolves in the rest of the lower 48 states are just vagabonds.


Because the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes populations have rebounded, the agency claims, gray wolves no longer warrant protection under the law.

Plaintiffs argue that’s bogus.

“The Service’s rule relies on the premise that alleged recovery in one region (the Great Lakes) is sufficient to delist a species formerly distributed across the entire continent,” reads one lawsuit. (Gray wolves in the Northern Rockies had lost all federal protection by the early 2010s.)

The suit argues that gray wolves are functionally extinct from about 85% of their historical range and still need federal protection.

The U.S. gray wolf population has slowly rebounded since the wolves were listed under the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s, but their foothold in many parts of the country remains feeble. Gray wolves number less than 200 each in Oregon and Washington. California has just a handful.

Related: The fate of Oregon's gray wolves is now in the state's hands

Gray wolf management and conservation approaches vary by state. West Coast states all have protection and conservation plans that include hunting and trapping bans.

“Those protections don’t exist in Idaho and Montana and Wyoming,” Cady said. “And what we’ve seen there is mass hunting of wolves and bounties even — and bounties are what led to wolf eradication or near-eradication in the first place.”

In a statement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service defended its decision to delist the gray wolf.

“After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery,” the statement reads. “This action reflects the determination that this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law.”