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Yellowstone Wolves’ Fate in Legal Hands

A video called “How Wolves Change Rivers” was posted on YouTube in February 2014.[1] It was about how wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 completely changed the ecosystem in a very complicated process called trophic cascade. Trophic cascade is “an ecological process which starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom,” the video explains. The wolves at the top of the food chain radically changed the behavior of deer, leading to increase in vegetation, bird, fish, beaver, reptile, bear populations, and eventually the flow of rivers. The video soon received millions of views through various social network services. Although this video elaborately shows the positive impact the reintroduction project had on Yellowstone’s ecosystem, the public knows little of the legal and political battles that have been waged in courts regarding the project.

The westward expansion of settlers in the 19th  century brought agriculture and domestic livestock into direct contact with wild carnivorous animals such as wolves.[2] This naturally resulted in the reliance of wild wolves on domestic livestock as their prey and subsequent effort by humans to eliminate such threat against their livelihood. Despite legislative efforts such as the Yellowstone National Park Act of 1872 that outlawed hunting down animals in the area, an intensive survey in the 1970s failed to find evidence of wolf population in the park.[3]

As the public started to realize the importance of environment protection in the 1970s, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed in 1973.[4] Section 10(j) of this Act allowed an experimental population to be released “outside the current range of such species if the Secretary determines that such release will further the conservation of such species.”[5] Based on this Act and approvals from the Congress and the Secretary of Interior after years of research and discussion, the reintroduction effort in Yellowstone and central Idaho began in January 1995 and continued until 66 wolves acquired from Canada were reintroduced.[6]

Of course, not everyone was happy about this reintroduction effort. History repeated itself. Just as westward expansion caused wild wolves to interact and prey on domestic animals, leading to hunting and eventual extinction of the wolves in the area, reintroduction was once again a threat to the livelihood of ranchers in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. In 2003, wolves killed about 500 sheep in Montana, while coyotes killed about 11,800.[7] After intense lobbying efforts by the local ranchers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a “Final Rule” removing the Northern Rocky Mountain (NRM) wolves from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, depriving the species from the protection it enjoyed over the last 35 year since the ESA was passed.[8] This judgment was based on scientific studies of the species’ population number and genetic exchange between different subpopulations in the area, which concluded that the species had stabilized enough and were no longer faced with serious threats to survival. The justification for this conclusion was that the numeric recovery goal of 30 breeding pairs and 300 wolves had been achieved for 8 straight years by 2007.[9]

A team of environmental conservationists led by Defenders of Wildlife immediately initiated action against this rule in the U.S. District Court of Montana. The plaintiffs first filed a motion to seek an injunction to reinstate protection of NRM wolves under ESA, at least while the lawsuit was pending.[10] The motion was granted, as 37 wolves had been killed in the month after their delisting, some with justified reasons (e.g. imminent threat to livestock) but others not.[11] The Court feared that allowing such a trend to continue might cause irreparable injury to the wolf population. Another key reason for this decision was that Wyoming’s policies failed to commit to maintaining more than 15 breeding pairs within its borders. In addition, with the state’s subjective depredation control law permitting the killing of wolves “doing damage to private property,” the Court was uncertain whether a viable population could still be maintained.[12]

In response, FWS passed another rule in 2009 simply removing Wyoming from the subject of the rule passed in 2008. In other words, NRM wolves were delisted from areas including Montana and Idaho, but not Wyoming. The District Court of Montana once again vacated this rule stating that ESA did not allow the experimental distinct population territory to be subdivided.[13] However, to the disappointment of the conservationists, the U.S. Congress passed an act subsequently signed by President Obama allowing FWS to reissue its 2009 rule, thereby effectively delisting the wolves in areas including Montana and Idaho.[14]

With this shift of morale, FWS and Wyoming made yet another rule in 2012 allowing delisting of the wolves in the state. The conservationists were as persistent as their counterparts. After a long battle in the court that lasted for almost two years (temporary injunction making the regulation ineffective for the duration of the litigation had been granted again), the D.C. District Court in Sep. 23, 2014 vacated and set aside the rule.[15] Although the Court concluded that Wyoming’s regulatory mechanisms were not adequate, it also concluded that most of FWS’s scientific study was persuasive and reasonable. This was a troubling conclusion for the conservationists because FWS’s study stated that the “predatory area,” in which anyone can kill wolves with few restrictions, set up by the 2012 rule is not a significant portion of the wolves’ habitat.

History has shown that the battle between conservationists and government agencies regarding the wolves in Wyoming is likely to continue. What started as an ecological effort has grown into a legal / political problem. This issue is no longer simply about conservation. The complexity of interests of different groups, the accuracy of scientific models, and the intricacies of legal procedures involved must be understood in order to facilitate a just resolution.


-Insung Hwang is a general member on MJEAL. He can be reached at


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] How Wolves Change Rivers (Nov. 19, 2014),

[2] Wolf Restoration Continued (Nov. 19, 2014),

[3] Id.

[4] 16 U.S.C.S. §1531, et seq.

[5] 16 U.S.C.S. §1539(j).

[6] Wolf, supra note 2.

[7] Restoration or Destruction: The Controversy over Wolf Reintroduction (Dec. 2, 2014),

[8] 73 F.R. 10,514.

[9] Defenders of Wildlife v. Hall, 565 F. Supp. 2d 1160, 1165 (D. Mont. 2008).

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 1176.

[12] Wyo. Stat. § 23-3-115(a).

[13] Defenders of Wildlife v. Salazar, 729 F. Supp. 2d 1207, 1228 (D. Mont. 2010).

[14] 77 FR 55530 at 55532-33.

[15] Defenders of Wildlife v. Jewell, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133271 (D.D.C. Sept. 23, 2014).


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