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Howling at the Government: The Fight to Get Wolves Back on the Endangered Species List

* By Taylor Hopkins

In Ojibwe, an Indigenous language spoken by the Anishinaabe people, the word for “wolf” is Ma’iingan.[1] When describing the significance of the wolf in Anishinaabe culture, Marvin Defoe, a member of the Red Cliff Tribe, said: “the Ma’iingan are our brothers. The legends and stories tell us as brothers we walk hand in hand together. What happens to the Ma’iingan happens to humanity.”[2]

In the wake of the removal of Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the gray wolf in 2020, wolves across the country were slaughtered in state sanctioned hunts. The hunts elicited outrage from Indigenous communities, including six Ojibwe tribes who argued that by holding wolf hunts, states were ignoring not only science, but also tribes’ rights to access resources and give input on environmental management.

On February 10, 2022, after over a year of mismanaged hunting and irreparable damage to wolf populations, Judge Jeffrey S. White, of the US District Court for the Northern District of California, restored ESA protections to gray wolves in 44 states.[3] While this is certainly a decision to be celebrated, getting gray wolves back on the Endangered Species List has been no easy task, and the fight to protect wolves is likely far from over.

The Endangered Species Act

The purpose of the ESA is to protect “threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitats in which they are found.”[4] On October 29, 2020, the Trump administration decided that gray wolves no longer needed these protections. This decision was made despite the opposition of 1.8 million Americans, numerous scientists and environmental groups, 86 members of Congress, and even scientific peer reviewed studies commissioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). These studies found the wolf delisting plan “ignored science” and lacked “scientific support.”[5]

Gray wolves had been classified as endangered under the ESA since 1974, after being hunted to near extinction and having a population size of less than 1,000.[6] Today, although the wolf population has risen to 6,000, they remain functionally extinct in over 80% of their historic range.[7] The FWS tried to decrease or eliminate ESA protections for gray wolves in 2003, 2007, 2009, and 2011 before finally succeeding under the Trump Administration in 2020.

The Benefits of Wolf Conservation

Wolves are a keystone species and play a crucial role in maintaining the ecosystems they inhabit.[8] They help keep deer and elk populations in check, thus preventing the overgrazing of plant species.[9] Wolves also provide food, via carcasses, for scavengers who redistribute nutrients into the ecosystem.[10]

In areas like Yellowstone National Park where wolves have been reintroduced, scientists are observing a trophic cascade of benefits throughout the ecosystem: regrowth of aspen trees and other native vegetation, food and shelter for birds and small mammals, and even increased beaver populations.[11] Research in Yellowstone has also shown that wolves create more resilient elk herds by thinning out weak and sick animals and helping keep elk populations stable.[12] With population sizes remaining steady year-to-year, elk no longer starve to death or need to be culled by the state.[13]

Although wolves play a legitimate and important part in ecosystem maintenance, many hunters and ranchers refuse to acknowledge this and continue clinging to anti-wolf sentiments. Ranchers argue that hunts are needed to prevent wolves preying on their livestock. Ironically, killing wolves can actually “destabilize packs,” ultimately leading to more livestock depredations.[14] Also, there are numerous nonlethal ways to prevent wolf-livestock conflict including livestock protection dogs, alarms, barriers/fencing, and reducing attractants.[15] Hunters contend that wolves kill too many popular game species—but in Montana at least, this is far from the truth. Data from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks data shows that deer and elk numbers are “consistently strong across the state,” and elk populations in particular are at a record number.[16]

What Happens to Wolves Without ESA Protections?

Without federal protections, management of wolf populations—and decisions over whether to hunt them—is left up to state governments. One especially devastating hunt occurred in Wisconsin in February 2021. The state issued 2,380 hunting permits and set a wolf kill quota of 200: 119 for hunters who applied for state permits and 81 for the Ojibwe Tribes.[17] The Ojibwe did not participate in the hunt and asserted their treaty rights to the wolves in an attempt to protect the wolves from being massacred.[18] But in three short days, hunters used packs of dogs, snares, and leg-hold traps to kill 218 wolves—exceeding both the state and tribal quotas.[19] Taking into account the additional one hundred wolves experts believe were killed by illegal poachers,[20] approximately one third of the state’s wolf population was slaughtered during the hunt.[21]    

Despite outrage from Native tribes and environmental groups, the Wisconsin Natural Resource Board approved a quota of 300 wolves for a November 2021 hunt—a number found by experts to be too high and unsupported by scientific data.[22] The state’s own Department of Natural Resources had only recommended a quota of 130.[23] These quotas were based on an estimate of 1,000 wolves in the state, but after the February hunt, experts believe the wolf population is actually somewhere between 695 and 751.[24] This time, the Ojibwe fought back.

After seeing hundreds of wolves killed during the February hunt, six Ojibwe tribes sued the state of Wisconsin for violating their treaty rights and endangering a sacred animal.[25] The tribes’ argued not only that the proposed kill quotas for the November hunt were not backed by science, but also that the hunt violated their treaty right to half of the wolves in ceded territory in Wisconsin.[26] While that right entitles the Ojibwe to hunt their share of the wolf population, the tribes “consider the wolves to be sacred and made a deliberate decision not to hunt them.”[27] The tribes brought the lawsuit for the same reason they did not participate in the February hunt: they want to protect Wisconsin’s wolves, their brothers the Ma’iingan. John Johnson, Sr., president of Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, explained the key differences between the tribes and those pushing for wolf hunts: “The out of state hunters are petitioning the courts just so they can hunt…We’re looking out for the next seven generations of our children. When we know it’s wrong to hunt, we don’t harvest…We take care of our community in a good way as others should. ”[28]

Although Judge White’s decision will stop wolf hunting in Wisconsin, it did not address one of the concerns in the Ojibwas’ lawsuit: states and the federal government continue to ignore the treaty rights of Native tribes and refuse to consult them about wildlife management. Wisconsin’s February wolf hunt was such a disaster in large part because hunters far exceeded the set kill quota by slaughtering wolves allotted to the Ojibwe, and the state did nothing about it.

The Ojibwe were not the only ones upset about gray wolves losing ESA protections. In a letter sent to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland on September 14, 2021, organizations representing nearly 200 Tribal Nations urged the Secretary to resist the gray wolf.[29] The letter also expressed the frustration felt by Indigenous communities over not being consulted about wolf de-listing: “Had either the Trump or Biden Administrations consulted tribal nations, as treaty and trust responsibilities require, they would have heard that as a sacred creature, the wolf is an integral part of the land-based identity that shapes our communities, beliefs, customs, and traditions. The land, and all it contains, is our temple.”[30]

Judge White’s Decision

In January 2021, the Humane Society of the United States and other wildlife organizations brought a lawsuit against the US Department of the Interior to get gray wolves back on the Endangered Species List.[31] The environmental groups argued that FWS violated the ESA by de-listing gray wolves and basing its decision on flawed assumptions that the gray wolf population had recovered.[32] Judge Jeffrey White of the US District Court for the Northern District of California agreed.

Judge White determined that, in deciding to remove ESA protections for gray wolves, the FWS “failed to adequately analyze and consider the impacts of partial delisting and of historical range loss” on the wolves.”[33] Further, Judge White criticized the FWS for basing their decision to de-list gray wolves only on recovering populations near the Great Lakes and Rocky Mountains, while ignoring the wolves’ absence throughout the rest of their historic range.[34] He found that the FWS “did not adequately consider threats to wolves outside of these core populations…[and instead concluded] with little explanation or analysis, that wolves outside of the core populations are not necessary to the recovery of the species.”[35]

While Judge White’s decision has been celebrated by conservationists, it has drawn criticism from hunters and ranchers. Luke Hilgemann, President of Hunter Nation and an advocate of wolf hunting, said: “We are disappointed that an activist judge from California decided to tell farmers, ranchers, and anyone who supports a balanced ecosystem with common-sense predator management that he knows better than them.”[36] An additional cause for concern is that the FWS has said it is “reviewing the court decision,” but has not addressed whether or not they will appeal.[37]

Conclusion: the End or the Beginning?

The FWS and the Trump administration were wrong to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List. Gray wolves were one of the first species to receive ESA protections and they still have a long recovery ahead of them before they can reclaim their historic habitat range. Judge White’s decision is an important step in the right direction and will save the lives of countless gray wolves. However, the work is far from done and environmental groups need to stay vigilant. This was not the first time the FWS has tried to remove ESA protections for gray wolves, and there is no reason to believe they will not try again.

Judge White’s decision should also worry Native American tribes like the Ojibwe who, despite their efforts to get gray wolves back on the Endangered Species List, have yet to see their frustrations about being excluded from state and federal wildlife management addressed. In fact, the only mention of Native tribes in Judge White’s decision appears in a footnote about groups who submitted amicus briefs.[38] While not all tribes campaigned to get the gray wolf back on the Endangered Species List, all tribes are “100 percent on board with wanting to be consulted [about wildlife management] …and don’t want to see the wolf killed to extinction.”[39]

Although Judge White’s ruling means the wolves in Wisconsin and many other states have a stay of execution, wolves in the Northern Rockies remain in danger. Gray wolves in Montana and Idaho lost ESA protections in 2011, followed by wolves in Wyoming in 2017, and Judge White’s decision overturning the 2020 de-listing does not apply to those states. In the past year these states have revoked many of their wolf-hunting restrictions and made it easier to kill wolves. Idaho lifted its 15 wolf per year kill limit, essentially sanctioning the slaughter of 90 percent of the state’s wolf population.[40] Montana increased its kill limit to 450 wolves per year and instituted a wolf bounty system in which hunters can be paid for killing wolves.[41] Both states also expanded permitted hunting tactics to include using inhumane choke-hold snares, leg-hold traps, and bait to lure wolves.[42] Since last spring, twenty-four of Yellowstone National Park’s famous gray wolves have been killed by hunters after roaming outside park limits into the surrounding states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.[43] Environmental organizations are currently lobbying the federal government to restore ESA protections to gray wolves in these states as well.

In the midst of the protests by hunters and ranchers, an FWS seemingly determined to strip wolves of ESA protections, and many key states unaffected by the ruling, Judge White’s decision feels less like the end of the fight to protect wolves, and more like it is just the beginning.

* Taylor Hopkins is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. They can be reached via email at taylormh@umich.edu

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.


[1] Wisconsin Tribes Sue the State for Treaty Violations Over Wolf Hunt, Earthjustice (Sept. 21, 2021), https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2021/wisconsin-tribes-sue-the-state-for-treaty-violations-over-wolf-hunt.

[2] Id.

[3] Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, No. 21-cv-00344-JSW (N.D. Cal. Feb. 10, 2022); see also Catrin Einhorn, Wolves Will Regain Federal Protection in Much of the U.S., New York Times (Feb. 10, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/10/climate/wolves-endangered-species-list.html.

[4] Summary of the Endangered Species Act, Environmental Protection Agency (Sept. 28, 2021), https://www.epa.gov/laws-regulations/summary-endangered-species-act.

[5] Groups Challenge Trump Administration Over Gray Wolf Delisting, Earthjustice (Jan. 14, 2021), https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2021/groups-challenge-trump-administration-over-gray-wolf-delisting.

[6] U.S. Wolf Action Timeline, Center for Biological Diversity, https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/gray_wolves/action_timeline.html.

[7] Kevin Allis, Biden breaks pledge to Indian country by keeping wolves off endangered list, Roll Call (Sept. 2, 2021, 6:00 AM), https://rollcall.com/2021/09/02/biden-breaks-pledge-to-indian-country-by-keeping-wolves-off-endangered-list/.

[8] Biodiversity, California Wolf Center (2022) https://www.californiawolfcenter.org/biodiversity.

[9] Id.; see also Christine Peterson, 25 years after returning to Yellowstone, wolves have helped stabilize the ecosystem, National Geographic (July 10, 2020), https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/yellowstone-wolves-reintroduction-helped-stabilize-ecosystem.

[10] The role of wolves in ecosystems, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (2022), https://wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/at-risk/species-recovery/gray-wolf/influence.; Biodiversity, California Wolf Center (2022) https://www.californiawolfcenter.org/biodiversity.

[11] Brodie Farquhar, Wolf Reintroduction Changes Ecosystem in Yellowstone, Outside (June 30, 2021), https://www.yellowstonepark.com/things-to-do/wildlife/wolf-reintroduction-changes-ecosystem/.

[12] Christine Peterson, 25 years after returning to Yellowstone, wolves have helped stabilize the ecosystem, National Geographic (July 10, 2020), https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/yellowstone-wolves-reintroduction-helped-stabilize-ecosystem.

[13] Id.

[14] Juliet Grable, Gray Wolves Will No Longer Have Federal Protection, Sierra Club (Nov. 2, 2020), https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/gray-wolves-will-no-longer-have-federal-protection.

[15] Non-lethal measures to minimize wolf-livestock conflict, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, https://www.dfw.state.or.us/wolves/non-lethal_methods.asp.

[16] Benji Jones, The bizarre push to kill more of Montana’s wolves, explained, Vox (April 12, 2021), https://www.vox.com/22371558/montana-wolves-hunting-deer-elk-moose; see also Elk Population and Distribution, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (2021), https://fwp.mt.gov/conservation/wildlife-management/elk/population-and-distribution.

[17] Douglas Main, A third of Wisconsin’s wolves killed after losing protections this year, study says, National Geographic (July 9, 2021), https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/wisconsin-wolf-hunt-killed-one-third-state-population.; Maria Cramer, Wisconsin Hunters Kill Over 200 Wolves in Less Than 3 Days, New York Times (March 3, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/us/wisconsin-wolves-killings.html.

[18] A Plan to Kill 300 Wolves in Wisconsin Has Sparked Outrage Among Tribal Nations, Earthjustice (Oct. 1, 2021), https://earthjustice.org/brief/2021/wolf-hunt-wisconsin-endangered-species-tribes-lawsuit#Ojibwe.

[19] Id.

[20] Douglas Main, A third of Wisconsin’s wolves killed after losing protections this year, study says, National Geographic (July 9, 2021), https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/wisconsin-wolf-hunt-killed-one-third-state-population.

[21] Wisconsin Tribes Sue the State for Treaty Violations Over Wolf Hunt, Earthjustice (Sept. 21, 2021), https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2021/wisconsin-tribes-sue-the-state-for-treaty-violations-over-wolf-hunt.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Jena Brooker, Indigenous nations in Wisconsin suing to prevent wolf hunts, Grist (Nov. 8, 2021), https://grist.org/regulation/indigenous-tribes-in-wisconsin-sue-to-stop-wolf-hunts/.

[25] Complaint at 3, Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin v. Cole, No. 3:21-cv-00597 (W.D. Wis. Sept. 21, 2021).

[26] Id.

[27] Maria Cramer, Wisconsin Hunters Kill Over 200 Wolves in Less Than 3 Days, New York Times (March 3, 2021), https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/us/wisconsin-wolves-killings.html.

[28] Wisconsin Tribes Sue the State for Treaty Violations Over Wolf Hunt, Earthjustice (Sept. 21, 2021), https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2021/wisconsin-tribes-sue-the-state-for-treaty-violations-over-wolf-hunt.

[29] Letter from Affiliated Tribes of Nw. Indians, Ass’n on Am. Indian Affairs, Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Ass’n, Inter-Tribal Council of Ariz., Native Just. Coal., Navajo Nation, Oneida Nation of Wis., Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, to Deb Haaland, Sec’y, DOI (Sept. 14, 2021), https://www.rmtlc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/FINALTRIBALLETTER.pdf.

[30] Id.

[31] Emma Tucker and Hannah Sarisohn, Federal judge reverses Trump era wildlife decision, restoring protections for the gray wolf, CNN (Feb. 12, 2022, 4:52 PM), https://www.cnn.com/2022/02/12/us/gray-wolves-endangered-species-list/index.html.

[32] Id.

[33] Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, No. 21-cv-00344-JSW, at 5 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 10, 2022).

[34] Id. at 11.

[35] Id.

[36] Catrin Einhorn, Wolves Will Regain Federal Protection in Much of the U.S., New York Times (Feb. 10, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/10/climate/wolves-endangered-species-list.html.

[37] Douglas Main, Most U.S. wolves are listed as endangered—again. Here’s why., National Geographic (Feb. 15, 2022), https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/gray-wolves-relisted-endangered-species-act.

[38] Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, No. 21-cv-00344-JSW at 2 n.3 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 10, 2022).

[39] Jena Brooker, Indigenous nations in Wisconsin suing to prevent wolf hunts, Grist (Nov. 8, 2021), https://grist.org/regulation/indigenous-tribes-in-wisconsin-sue-to-stop-wolf-hunts/.

[40] Jena Brooker, Indigenous nations in Wisconsin suing to prevent wolf hunts, Grist (Nov. 8, 2021), https://grist.org/regulation/indigenous-tribes-in-wisconsin-sue-to-stop-wolf-hunts/; see also Kevin Allis, Biden breaks pledge to Indian country by keeping wolves off endangered list, Roll Call (Sept. 2, 2021, 6:00 AM), https://rollcall.com/2021/09/02/biden-breaks-pledge-to-indian-country-by-keeping-wolves-off-endangered-list/.

[41] Jena Brooker, Indigenous nations in Wisconsin suing to prevent wolf hunts, Grist (Nov. 8, 2021), https://grist.org/regulation/indigenous-tribes-in-wisconsin-sue-to-stop-wolf-hunts/.

[42] Matthew Brown, Hunters kill 20 Yellowstone wolves that roamed out of park, AP News (Jan. 6, 2022), https://apnews.com/article/science-environment-and-nature-wyoming-montana-billings-a5cd3e869c32f1d4dfc6ad6a8bf0d831.

[43] Margaret Osborne and Rachael Lallensack, Hunters Have Killed 24 Yellowstone Gray Wolves So Far This Season—the Most in Over 25 Years, Smithsonian Magazine (Feb. 9, 2022), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/hunters-have-killed-24-yellowstone-gray-wolves-so-far-this-season-the-most-in-over-25-years-180979545/.

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