A federal judge in California on Friday heard testimony on a lawsuit that seeks to restore federal protections for wolves across much of the U.S., including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Attorneys for the Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity and several other groups, represented by Earthjustice, argued in the hearing that gray wolves in the lower 48 states should regain federal Endangered Species Act protections.
The hearing took place in the Northern District Court of California, with Senior U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White making no decision from the bench.
“Gray wolf populations are a fraction of what they once were and need federal protections to recover,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement. “We hope that the court has heard our concerns and sees that delisting wolves was reckless and premature.”
Collete Adkins, Minnesota-based carnivore conservation program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the judge gave little indication if or when he might rule on the case.
“With so much at stake for the future of the species, we’re hopeful the court will do right by the wolf,” Adkins said. “Our battle for wolves won’t stop until their protection is fully restored and they’re back on the path to recovery.”
The hearing follows an October 2020 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Trump administration to remove federal protections for the gray wolf in the lower 48 states. The decision, which took effect Jan. 4, impacts gray wolves in at least 44 states, especially in the western Great Lakes, central Rockies and Pacific Coast regions, where current wolf populations exist.
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So far, the Biden administration has allowed the delisting move to stand, agreeing with past administrations — as far back as the Clinton administration in the 1990s — that wolves have recovered enough to hand their management back to states and tribes. Several farm and hunting groups support the delisting, saying wolf numbers need to be culled to protect pets, livestock and deer populations.
Wolf supporters have countered, however, that aggressive wolf killing supported by several state natural resource agencies has already put wolf survival back in jeopardy, citing wolf bounties and liberal seasons in western states and the February wolf hunting season in Wisconsin that saw 216 wolves killed in less than 72 hours, potentially a fourth of all wolves in the state.
Another federal lawsuit, filed in Wisconsin, remains in limbo after a federal judge in Madison heard oral arguments in October, but did not rule on a suit that seeks to stop Wisconsin from holding its second wolf hunt of the year. A state court judge already has halted the planned November hunt in a decision expected to be appealed. It's unclear if or when the federal case in Wisconsin might move forward.
Wolves were common across much of the U.S. before European settlement, but were nearly extinct by the 1960s, when fewer than 500 of them remained, all of them in northern Minnesota. The animals received federal protections in the 1970s and their number began to rebound across northern Minnesota, spreading into Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. Wolves also have regained a foothold in the Rocky Mountains and now several western states as well.
Minnesota has an estimated 2,500 wolves with about 1,000 in Wisconsin and more than 500 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Officials for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have said they will wait until the state has a new wolf management plan in place — likely sometime in 2022 — before deciding if and when to hold any wolf hunting or trapping season in the state.