At the end of October 2020, the Trump administration finalized a rule that delisted gray wolves in the lower 48 states from the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Wolves’ previous listing in the ESA had meant they could not be hunted anywhere in the U.S. except for Alaska, but following the decision, states’ departments of natural resources (DNRs) resumed “wolf management,” or decisions about controlling wolf populations through preservation, hunting or trapping.
There are around 6,000 wolves in the lower 48 states, although the population is difficult to pinpoint, as hunters killed off a large portion of the wolf population this year following the delisting. The western Great Lakes area (Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota) is home to the biggest wolf population in the U.S., and the Northern Rocky Mountains (Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Wyoming) also have a sizable population. These areas all have gray wolves, while the Southwest has around 180 Mexican gray wolves and North Carolina has around 20 red wolves, both of which continue to be protected under the ESA and were unaffected by the 2020 decision.
Since the delisting occurred, states have been working on their wolf management plans. These plans most directly affect conservationists, hunters and anyone who lives in wolf territory, especially farmers. Below are answers to common questions about the October decision and how it affected wolves in the Midwest.
What is the Endangered Species Act (ESA)?
The Nixon administration signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973 to protect animals and plants that had been threatened by economic growth and inadequate conservation efforts, and to prevent these species’ extinction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) administer the act. Each is responsible for different species, with the FWS overseeing terrestrial species like wolves. Species may be listed for special protections if they meet one of five criteria or delisted if they no longer meet the criteria. Listed species are categorized as either endangered (in danger of extinction) or threatened (likely to become endangered). FWS and NMFS biologists assess which species should be listed under the ESA, but individuals can also petition to list (or delist) a species too.
What happens if a species is listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA? Or not listed?
Listed species receive protective measures. There are restrictions on killing, harming, trapping, collecting, transporting and selling threatened and endangered species under the ESA, and listed species’ environments are also protected. Just because a species is listed doesn’t mean it’s listed everywhere, though. Species can be listed across the U.S. or only in certain states.
State governments manage species that are not protected by the ESA. That means that without an ESA listing, states may hold regulated hunts on specific dates and with restricted wolf quotas, or allow people to kill animals in specific circumstances. Regardless of whether states hold hunts, they may still allow residents to kill wolves that are acting aggressive or threatening people, pets or livestock.
How long have wolves been protected?
Wolves were protected under the 1966 Endangered Species Protection Act, the predecessor to the ESA. Then, wolf species in the lower 48 states were listed as ESA endangered species in the first few years after the act was put into law. Around this time, the wolf population had been decimated in the U.S., and there were fewer than 1,000 wolves in the lower 48 states. Since the ESA was instated, gray wolf numbers have grown. They are now high enough that in 2020, some people felt that wolves no longer met the ESA listing criteria, although many conservationists believe their numbers are still too low and that the delisting will result in population reductions due to hunts (which has already happened – keep reading).
The newest delisting is not the first time wolves have been removed from the ESA’s oversight, though. Wolves have been delisted, relisted and delisted again at various times in the Northern Rockies states and the western Great Lakes states. Some of these cyclical listings and delistings were the result of FWS decisions, but often, they were due to lawsuits by livestock and hunting groups, the national government, states and state agencies, and environmental and conservation groups. Alaska, which is home to two-thirds of the country’s wolves, has never been listed in the ESA; only the lower 48 states have.
What opinions do people have about wolves?
As you might expect, conservationists and environmentalists tend to want to preserve and grow wolf populations. People who live in areas with wolves, though, especially farmers, sometimes see wolves as more of a threat, specifically to children, pets and livestock. (While Democratic lawmakers typically advocate for wolf protections – but not always – Republican lawmakers tend to favor delisting; both the Biden and Obama administrations, however, also advocated for delisting.) While wolves do occasionally kill pets and livestock, there has been only one documented human fatality from a wolf encounter in the U.S. in the last 30 years, which occured in Alaska.
In preparation for making their own state management plans in periods when wolves were delisted, some states did public opinion surveys. Wisconsin conducted its last survey in 2014, and a majority of respondents agreed that wolves were “important members of the ecological community.” Overall, participants had positive attitudes toward wolves.
The top priority for a wolf management plan was to “kill wolves that show aggression or threatening behavior toward people.” A majority of respondents supported a regulated wolf harvest: 62 percent of people who lived in wolf ranges and 51 percent of people who lived out of range. The survey found three main factors that affected people’s attitudes toward wolves: living in a wolf range, living or growing up in a rural area, and being a deer hunter. Deer hunters tend to want fewer wolves around because wolves kill deer.
More recently, in 2019, Minnesota conducted a survey to understand the values of three stakeholder groups: deer hunters, livestock producers and residents. Of residents, 69 percent had positive attitudes toward wolves, whereas 51.5 percent of deer hunters and 62.2 percent of livestock producers had negative attitudes toward wolves. Unsurprisingly, a majority of deer hunters and livestock producers (but not residents) supported a hunting and trapping season. Neither Minnesota’s nor Wisconsin’s study included Native people as a stakeholder group, although they may have been included in the general survey population.
Are Native people’s relationship with wolves taken into account?
Federally recognized tribes signed treaties that ceded territory to the U.S. government, and these treaties typically give tribes the right to control hunting and fishing on their own reservation land and to hunt in ceded territory outside reservations. That means that even if a state decides to hold a hunt, a tribe can decide that no hunting can occur on their reservation(s) if they have one. That happened this year in February, when Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources set a hunting quota of 200 wolves and split the quota with Wisconsin’s Ojibwe tribes, who declined to “use” their quota. Wolves roam, however, and preventing a wolf from being shot on a reservation is no guarantee that it won’t wander off the reservation and be shot elsewhere. “Consultation laws” require states to involve Native American tribes in creating state management plans, but states don’t always follow those requirements, violating treaty rights. Which leads us to…
What’s happened since the newest delisting?
In Wisconsin: Wisconsin planned to hold a wolf hunt in November, as a state law mandates that the state allow wolf trapping and hunting from November through February if wolves are not on the ESA list. (No other state has a law that requires a hunt, and Democratic lawmakers in Wisconsin recently drafted a bill that would do away with the required hunt.) But a Kansas-based hunter advocacy group won a court case that required the state to hastily put together a hunt this February. The state neglected to consult tribes, and the hunt occurred at a time of year when female wolves tend to be pregnant with pups, virtually guaranteeing a long term dip in Wisconsin’s wolf population. State-licensed hunters killed 216 wolves despite the quota of 119. (The original quota was 200, but Ojibwe tribes did not use their 81-wolf allotment). Lawmakers, environmental groups and the public at large – including many Native people – complained that the two-day hunt was poorly organized and unethical, and the DNR said that it was unable to shut down the hunting season as soon as hunters were nearing the quota because state law requires the state to provide 24-hours notice before stopping hunting.
Wisconsin began real revisions of its wolf management plan after this, and its current planning group includes members from tribal groups, government groups, hunting and trapping organizations, wolf advocacy and education organizations, and agriculture and ranching organizations. But in a controversial decision on Aug. 1 based on the old plan’s state management goal of maintaining 350 wolves, Wisconsin’s Natural Resources Board approved a kill quota of 300 wolves for the state’s fall hunting and trapping season, more than double the 130-wolf quota the DNR had proposed. At the meeting, three-quarters of the nearly 50 organizations and people who testified asked for a quota of 0 or fewer than 130; people worried that even the 130-wolf proposal would decimate the wolf population.
In Minnesota: Minnesota, unlike Wisconsin, will not hold a wolf hunt in 2021. Legislation that would have required the DNR to hold a wolf hunt – similar to the Wisconsin court case – failed to pass the Minnesota Legislature, as did a bill that would have prevented the state from holding a wolf hunt. But the DNR decided on its own not to hold a hunt, anyway. The department has been working on an updated wolf management plan since 2019 and is waiting until the plan is complete in 2022 to make a decision about a hunt.
In Michigan: The Michigan Senate passed a resolution along party lines in March urging the state to organize a hunting and trapping season, but the resolution is only a recommendation; it doesn’t require the DNR to hold a season, and the DNR hasn’t commented on the resolution. Michigan is now conducting a new public opinion survey and updating its 2015 wolf management plan, and the state has not made a decision yet about a wolf hunt. In April, though, a wolf advocacy group sued the Michigan DNR, alleging that the state’s Wolf Management Advisory Council – which will provide recommendations to the DNR for its wolf management plan – is unbalanced and overrepresents wolf hunters.
Nationally: While individual states scramble to update their plans now that wolves have been delisted from the ESA, other people are attempting to reverse the delisting. Early this year, several environmental groups, including Earthjustice, unsuccessfully filed suit against the FWS for the delisting. More recently, environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Human Society of the U.S., filed petitions asking the Biden administration to relist wolves. Native American groups also filed an emergency petition in May and sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland this month following up on their petition and proposing that the FWS immediately relist wolves for 240 days.
Although the FWS had previously defended the delisting, the agency announced in September that it may need to restore wolves’ protections and that it would begin conducting a year-long biological review. The agency said in its announcement that petitions had provided evidence that human-caused mortalities may threaten the wolf population in the western states. A year, though, is long enough to substantially decrease the U.S.’ wolf population.
So, what now?
Some of the existing ESA criteria for listing are subjective, like “inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms.” Wolf advocates might argue that sufficient mechanisms aren’t in place. A hunting group might think that they are. The FWS may say that gray wolves have successfully recovered. But if the courts buy advocacy groups’ arguments, wolves’ ESA listing could be reestablished, their population having taken a dip but their protections restored.
If wolves remain delisted, then the new state management plans will establish a goal number for the wolf population and provide recommendations for how exactly wolves should be managed (through hunts or individuals who see wolves as a threat to their livestock, for example). But the management plan committees don’t always get the final say; the plans are then submitted to another group or person for approval. Wisconsin’s final authority, the Natural Resources Board, has already gone against DNR recommendations — ultimately leaving the fate of the U.S.’s gray wolves hard to predict.