The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will initiate a status review of the gray wolf in the West following calls to restore the species’ protections, the agency announced Wednesday, hours after wolf hunting season opened in Wyoming and Montana.
Gray wolves, a sought-after trophy game species, have received intermittent federal protections in Wyoming and other Western states since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. The wolves were delisted and relisted several times over the last decade, but have remained off the endangered species list in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho since 2017.
Wolves, however, are polarizing animals. In the years since the species was last delisted, all three states have faced mounting pressure to curb gray wolf populations through the expansion of trophy hunting. Wyoming has a long and fraught relationship with wolves, especially among ranchers who have lost livestock to the animals.
This spring, Montana and Idaho passed laws intended to reduce the wolves’ numbers to the minimums set by the Fish and Wildlife Service when the species was last delisted. Conservation groups say the new protocols could lead to the deaths of up to 85% of Montana’s roughly 1,200 wolves and 90% of Idaho’s roughly 1,500 by the end of this hunting season. The Idaho wolf hunt has been underway since July.
“It could be disastrous for wolf populations,” said Andrea Zaccardi, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Idaho and Montana are both allowing almost unlimited killing. Hunters and trappers can kill as many wolves as they want in Idaho. In Montana, they can kill up to 10. So one person could conceivably wipe out a pack.”
Two petitions sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service this summer argued that the new laws in Idaho and Montana pose an excessive threat to gray wolves and asked that the species be relisted in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Western U.S. under the Endangered Species Act. Doing so would eliminate wolf hunting in the region.
Though Wyoming has been criticized in the past for its approach to gray wolf management, the state’s current strategy — which includes a 47-wolf quota for this year’s hunt — is a lesser concern among conservationists than the hunts planned by its neighbors. But if the federal government does relist the wolves in Montana and Idaho, they’ll likely be protected in Wyoming, too.
“Because we are neighbors with those states, what happens to their wolf populations also affects us,” said Loren Taylor, executive director of Wyoming Untrapped. “Wolves and animals don’t know state lines or borders. They just know their ecosystems.”
The final verdict on relisting is still a ways out. Within 90 days of receiving a petition, the agency must evaluate whether the requests merit further evaluation. It doesn’t have to take a stance on any of the claims. But if anything seems significant, the agency will take a closer look.
“We have found that the petitions provide substantial information that lead a reasonable person to believe that the petitioned action may be warranted,” said Marj Nelson, the agency’s ecological services division manager for the Missouri Basin and Upper Colorado Basin.
The service will conduct a status review, which must be completed no more than 12 months after the first petition was received, before determining whether to initiate a rulemaking process for relisting the gray wolf. That decision is expected by June 1.