(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.”
“The FWS’s final rule challenged in this action is no more valid than the agency’s three prior attempts to remove federal protections for a population of gray wolves, which are otherwise members of an endangered species,” Howell wrote. “The challenged final rule is predicated on both an untenable reading of the ESA and otherwise flawed findings.”
Howell shot down the defendants’ argument that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because they did not prove that delisting gray wolves would reduce gray wolf populations and thus wolf sightings.
Data from Wisconsin and Michigan contradict this assertion by demonstrating that wolf populations have diminished in areas where hunting them has been made legal, thus giving the plaintiffs standing to sue for injury, according to the ruling.
Howell agreed with the plaintiffs that designating a wolf population segment in order to delist it “violates the spirit and the letter of the ESA” because this tool is intended to provide extra protections for a species, not remove all protection from it.
The FWS argued that the Endangered Species Act grants it statutory authority to do so, but Howell disagreed, saying that this “makes no sense within the context of the ESA.”
“The ESA makes no provision for creating a DPS [designated population segment] and removing protections from the covered vertebrates at the same time because, by definition, a DPS cannot be protected under the ESA unless the vertebrates have been identified as a ‘threatened’ or ‘endangered’ species first. An ‘unprotected’ DPS is, in short, an oxymoron,” the ruling states.
Howell also took issue with the FWS’s argument that the Great Lakes designated population of wolves had been a DPS since 1978, and that the final rule was simply modifying the population’s boundaries, calling the agency’s claim “revisionist history.”
The Great Lakes wolves cannot have been a designated segment since 1978 because DPS terminology was not included in the Endangered Species Act until after 1978, Howell found. Moreover, the Minnesota wolves could not have been considered a designated segment in 1978 because the FWS did not adopt that terminology until 1996, and the agency could not have been modifying existing boundaries because “the boundaries of the western Great Lakes DPS are significantly different from those of Minnesota,” the ruling states.
To be considered a designated segment, a population must be discrete from other populations and must either live in a unique habitat, be genetically different from other populations in its taxon, or cause a “significant gap in the range of a taxon” if lost.
Expanding the Minnesota wolf population’s boundaries from one state to nine implies that it was not actually a DPS. To conclude that it was a DPS would mean that these wolves suddenly became genetically unique or acquired unique habitat in this nine-state area that other gray wolves do not have, which is not supported by the evidence, the court found.
The final rule is therefore invalid because delisting a DPS at the same time as designating it subverts and therefore violates the express purpose of the Endangered Species Act, the court found.
“Wolves are the subject of heated disputes, with those on every side of the issue offering heartfelt arguments as to how best to manage this unique species,” Howell wrote. “The last decade of litigation is a testament to those passions. While the FWS and the defendant-intervenors may have practical policy reasons for attempting to remove the gray wolf in the western Great Lakes from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, those policy reasons cannot overcome the strictures imposed by the ESA. The ESA offers the broadest possible protections for endangered species by design. This law reflects the commitment by the United States to act as a responsible steward of the Earth’s wildlife, even when such stewardship is inconvenient or difficult for the localities where an endangered or threatened species resides.” Howell vacated the final rule and ordered the FWS to “reinstate immediately the protections for gray wolves in the affected area as these protections existed prior to the final rule’s effective date.”
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