A US District Court judge in Northern California today vacated 2020’s federal delisting of gray wolves in the western two-thirds of Washington, Oregon and elsewhere in the Lower 48 outside of the Northern Rockies, taking away full WDFW and ODFW management of the species after a scant 13 months.
The move puts wolves back under the federal Endangered Species Act as endangered and was heralded by a range of environmental groups that had sued the Trump Administration over its January 4, 2021 delisting, which was subsequently defended by the Biden Administration.
It does not affect state management in the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, where wolves were delisted in 2011 by Congress. Twenty-three of 29 of the Evergreen State’s known packs occur in that area, as does a similar percentage of the Beaver State’s, and from which dispersers such as OR7 and others are moving west.
“We’re very disappointed by today’s ruling, as it’s clear that wolves have recovered across their intended range when placed under federal protection,” said Evan Heusinkveld, president and CEO of the Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation, which filed an amicus brief in the court case. “We will continue to work with our partners to ensure recovered wolf populations are properly delisted and returned to state management as was laid out in the 2017 court case.”
The remarks were echoed by Kyle Weaver, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
“Scientists, biologists and professional wildlife managers agree that wolf populations are stable and growing,” he said “As such, they should remain under the umbrella of state management since state wildlife agencies successfully manage all other wildlife in line with the North American Wildlife Conservation Model through regulated hunting and trapping.”
At issue was USFWS’s use of two core populations – the Northern Rockies and Great Lakes States – to declare wolves elsewhere south of the Canadian border recovered.
In his decision today, Judge Jeffrey White wrote that the US Fish and Wildlife Service had acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” way when it lumped wolves in western portions of Washington, Oregon and elsewhere on the West Coast with those in the Northern Rockies.
“Although the Service acknowledged the existence of West Coast wolves of mixed ancestry, it did not adequately address the science indicating that these wolves have distinct genetic traits that could distinguish them from NRM wolves or provide a rational explanation for its conclusion. Thus, unlike in [another federal court case], the record does not reflect that the Service’s conclusion about the genetic distinctiveness of West Coast wolves was the result of a thoughtful and comprehensive evaluation of the best available science about the genetic relationships between the wolf populations,” wrote the Oakland-based judge who serves on the federal bench’s Northern District of California.
According to WDFW, Washington’s wolves stem from source populations in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and British Columbia, but in the early years of colonization, preliminary testing of the Lookout Pack’s breeding adults turned up some coastal BC genes mixed in with those from elsewhere in the province and Alberta.
That particular pair of wolves went on to sire both the male and female that formed the Teanaway Pack, which further inbred as that male mated with several of their daughters over the years. A new alpha male moved in in early 2020.
The plaintiffs also took issue with USFWS’s review of WDFW’s, ODFW’s and other states’ wolf management plans, believing them to be inadequate, but Judge White shot that down.
“While state regulatory mechanisms need not necessarily be legally binding, courts must review the mechanisms’ purported adequacy to see ‘if they work.’ Here, the Court concludes that the Service’s review of the regulatory mechanisms in Washington, Oregon, and California meet this bar. The Service considered the plans for wolf management in California, Oregon, and Washington and articulated a reasonable basis for the conclusion that sufficient protections existed to guide management of wolves in these states following delisting. The Final Rule addressed the plans in each state and determined that the regulatory mechanisms were not so inadequate that they represented a threat to the species,” he wrote.
A statement from WDFW noted that the agency remains committed to wolf recovery in Washington, where the species continues to be state-listed as endangered.
“We will continue to work closely with partners, stakeholders, and communities, just as we have over the past decade, on the recovery, conservation, and management of wolves in Washington, with a focus on achieving the state’s recovery objectives and mitigating conflict between wolves and livestock. The state of Washington has facilitated wolf recovery for more than a decade and remains prepared to be the management authority for wolves statewide,” the agency said.
Spokesman Michelle Dennehy said ODFW was still going over the ruling but would be getting more information out to ranchers and others asap to explain what the judge’s decision means and how it affects Oregon wolf management.
“Broadly, it’s our understanding the ruling applies west of Highways 395-78-95, putting wolves back under the federal ESA in this area and making the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service the lead management agency for wolves there. This will change some of the rules related to responding to chronic depredation of livestock in this area, removing the option for ODFW and livestock producers to consider lethal control of wolves in these situations, for example.”
She said more details would be on the agency’s wolf page soon.
Wolf surveys are now ongoing in the Northwest and will likely find populations that continue to rise, if more than a decade of annual winter counts are any indication.
Washington’s 2020 year-end tally was a minimum of 178 wolves in state and tribal administered areas, a 22 percent jump, while Oregon’s was 173, reflecting nearly 10 percent growth over the previous year.
Earlier today WDFW posted a blog about how it goes about capturing and collaring wolves in winter.
Plaintiffs in Thursday’s ruling, which bridged three different lawsuits, included Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, Oregon Wild, Humane Society of the United States, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Cascadia Wildlands, Environmental Protection Information Center, Kettle Range Conservation Group, Klamath Forest Alliance, Klamath-Sisikyou Wildlands Center, The Lands Council, Wildlands Network and the National Resources Defense Council.
Filing amicus briefs in support of them were the States of Michigan and Oregon, a number of Indian tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan as well as animal welfare and environmental groups.
In support of the government’s argument, amicus briefs were filed by the Oregon Farm Bureau, Oregon Cattleman’s Association, Klamath County, Gray Wolf Agricultural Coalition, Sportsmen Conservation Coalition and Hunter Nation.