(CN) - After a long fight, a federal judge ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reinstate protections for the gray wolf in the Great Lakes region.
"The gray wolf, like the bald eagle and the grizzly bear, has become a symbol of endangered species but, perhaps more than other such species, the gray wolf is also a lightening rod for controversy," U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell wrote in the 111-page ruling in District of Columbia Federal Court.
Varying in color from gray to dappled black to pure white, gray wolves were once found throughout the Lower 48 states. Extensive extermination campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries nearly wiped out the species, but reintroduction efforts since 1995 have helped its populations slowly recover.
There are about 7,000 to 11,200 gray wolves in Alaska, 3,700 in the Great Lakes Region, and 1,675 in the Northern Rockies, according to the Defenders of Wildlife web page.
The gray wolf typically grows up to 4½ to 6½ feet long from nose to tail, weighs 55 to 130 lbs., and can live up to 8 years in the wild. They primarily eat hoofed mammals such as elk and deer, but also prey on rabbits and beavers and sometimes scavenge.
Conservation groups have fought since 1966 to protect wolves, which were some of the first species granted federal protection. After securing protections for several gray wolf subspecies throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, the entire species, Canis lupus, secured endangered status in 1978.
Wolf populations under federal protection are threatened by livestock owners who shoot them for preying on cattle. Wolves living in places where they are not protected by the Endangered Species Act are killed by hunters and trappers, while loss of historical habitat, competing with human hunters for prey animals, and prejudices that mischaracterize wolves as evil also threaten their numbers.
Despite these numerous threats, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tried to delist gray wolves three times since 2003, but was prevented from doing so by federal courts and the threat of legal action from conservation groups.
It revived delisting efforts in a final rule that took effect in January 2012. Among other things, the rule established a designated population segment encompassing Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan and parts of six other states. The agency delisted that population from Endangered Species Act protections on the grounds that western Great Lakes wolves were not facing extinction and were not likely to, "in the foreseeable future."
The Humane Society of the United States, Born Free USA, Help Our Wolves Live, and Friends of Animals and Their Environment immediately challenged the rule, claiming it violated the Endangered Species Act and Administrative Procedures Act.
The groups claimed the rule improperly designated and simultaneously delisted the designated population segment without adequate study, relied on insufficient state regulations to protect wolves after removal from protected status, and restricted species threat analysis to wolves in the Great Lakes region rather than to wolves in the entire coterminous United States.
Judge Howell sided with the plaintiffs on Dec. 19, stating that this is a case where the court "must lean forward from the bench to let an agency know, in no uncertain terms, that enough is enough."