Conservation and Biodiversity

Coalition seeks reinstatement of federal wolf protections


A federal court restored protections for gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act after they were removed by the Trump administration in 2020. The decision ordered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to continue the work of restoring endangered species and reclassified the gray wolf as endangered in the lower 48 states with the exception of the Northern Rockies. 

Back in July of last year, EARTHDAY‍.ORG joined with other environmental groups in filing an amicus brief which explained how the removal of wolves from the ESA-protected list was an illegal maneuver that caused an urgent threat to their survival across their historical range. Because of the Trump administration’s removal of protections, we witnessed an all out assault on wolves in several states. Hunters had a license to recklessly kill gray wolves for sport. 

This ruling is a huge win for wolves in states where they have yet to achieve stable, robust populations. Yet there also remains an intense pressure to hunt wolves in states such as Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming which were not part of this decision. 


On July 23, 2021, the Sault St. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and a coalition of 14 conservation groups, many centered in the Great Lakes region, sought leave from the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to submit an amicus (friend of the court) brief that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the “Service”) violated the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) in removing the gray wolf from ESA protection.

The amicus brief explains how the January 2021 removal of wolves from the ESA-protected list was an illegal maneuver that causes an urgent threat to their survival across their historical range. The Trump administration stripped away ESA protections for wolves in an arbitrary and capricious manner just before the upcoming change in administrations.

Since then, several states have executed or planned hunting and trapping seasons that target a large portion of the small populations that survive. A major ground for the delisting was a reliance on state-level wolf conservation plans to protect populations within each state boundary, but the coalition’s brief explains how some states have treated their newfound authority as a license to kill wolves.

“We’ve seen an all-out assault on core communities of wolves in the Midwest and West. These actions warrant decisive action by the federal court and by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to shield wolves from reckless slaughter and thrill-killing.”

Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action

Contrary to claims made by the Service, wolves face urgent, imminent, and cognizable threats to their populations. Despite the illegal federal delisting from the Endangered Species Act, they are not recovered. 

Wolves number only slightly more than 5,000 across their range in the lower 48 states, and they face a panoply of threats. Without the shield of federal protection, the human persecution of wolves has ramped up in a way reminiscent of the 19th-century slaughter of the animals.

“Recent events in Michigan and Wisconsin are just another example in the long history of attempts to obliterate the gray wolf in the United States, despite its unique and critical role in America’s biological landscape. It also proves that states are unable or unwilling to manage this valuable species, which will critically imperil the survival and recovery of the gray wolf. The gray wolf continues to need the full protection of the Endangered Species Act.”

Kathleen Rogers, president of EARTHDAY.ORG

The motion and proposed brief in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California was issued by Animal Wellness Action, the Sault St. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians (the largest tribe east of the Mississippi River), EARTHDAY.ORG, The 06 Legacy, The Alliance For Animals, Animal Wellness Foundation, The Center for A Humane Economy, Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf and Wildlife, Good Wolf, League of Humane Voter – Wisconsin, National Wolfwatcher Coalition, Plan B To Save Wolves, SPCA International, Wolf Patrol, and Wisconsin Wolf Front United. It urges the court to vacate the delisting rule and restore ESA protections for grey wolves across the lower 48 states. The parties are represented by the law firm of Shartsis Friese LLP in San Francisco.

In Wisconsin, within days after the federal delisting became effective in January 2021, state lawmakers wrote a letter to the Department of Natural Resources demanding the immediate opening of a hunting season even as wolf conservation experts at the state agency indicated that they needed more time to develop a science-based quota, seek input from tribes and other stakeholders, and update its fourteen-year-old wolf management plan. According to the state’s own governor, “DNR [Department of Natural Resources] was forced to develop harvest quotas without the usual input and science-based research it would have used had more time been available.”

The disastrous result of Wisconsin’s reckless rush to conduct a 2021 wolf hunting season demonstrates why the federal government’s cursory analysis and conclusion that state-level protections were adequate was clearly ill-founded. The DNR’s quota of 200 wolves spurred a 60-hour killing spree that resulted in the deaths of at least 218 wolves, exceeding the 119-kill limit allocated outside of tribal lands by 82%. 

Most of the wolf carcasses examined following the hunt showed excessive evidence of dog bites, proving that hunters are, in fact, using dogs to kill wolves in what amounts to state-sanctioned animal fighting. One wildlife expert who examined the wolf carcasses noted, “In my nearly 30 years of anatomic pathology experience, the extent of intentional premortem trauma that I observed, and that was documented, with these February 2021 wolves was egregious and appalling.”

In Michigan, some state lawmakers have attempted a similar campaign to kill wolves by introducing a Resolution that urged the DNR to quickly implement a wolf hunting and trapping program in 2021 while federal protections were absent. The lawmakers’ efforts were mounted even as state DNR officials were insisting that more time was needed to gather data, update wolf management plans, and consult with tribes.

Undeterred, the Michigan Senate recently passed a bill that allows residents exclusively drawn from the state’s rural Upper Peninsula, rather than from the entire state, to sit on the state’s wolf management advisory council intended to inform future conservation and hunting practices. The Upper Peninsula is home to just 3% of the state’s human population.

In Idaho, the governor signed a bill into law on May 5 that will allow for the killing of 90% or more of the state’s wolf population. The law was so dismissive of scientific management principles that Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game officially opposed the bill because, according to reports, it “remove[d] decisions about how to manage wildlife from the department’s professionals and place[d] that decision making in the hands of politicians.”

This is not the first time that states have irresponsibly rushed to implement barbaric wolf-killing sprees following federal delisting attempts. Following the last delisting attempt in 2011, Minnesota and Wisconsin authorized some of the most abusive and unsporting practices, including hound hunting, snares, baiting, electronic calls, and the use of leg hold traps.

This produced a body count well past 1,000 animals over two hunting seasons, with wolf numbers declining in every state. Wisconsin alone lost 17 family units in just three seasons – a fifth of its total wolf population – just through hunting and trapping.

The restoration of federal ESA protections is critical for the future of gray wolves in North America. Several states have proven, time and again, that they are incapable of properly managing their wolf populations. State management practices are demonstrably inadequate and, if left unchecked, will reverse decades of conservation gains for the gray wolf.

There are three cases pending before the court to vacate the gray wolf delisting action. Earlier this summer, the National Congress of American Indians unanimously adopted a resolution opposing the delisting action and criticizing the federal government for its failure to meaningfully consult with the tribes. The court is scheduled to hear oral argument in the cases in early November 2021.

Statements from some leaders of organizations joining the petition

“Friends of the WI Wolf and Wildlife have signed onto this lawsuit because we feel wolves had not recovered in most of their range and, maybe more importantly, the states wolf management plans are wolf hostile, threatening continued recovery and lack best available science. This may force states such as Wisconsin, with horrible wolf management plans, cruel hunting seasons using snares and dogs with no scientific basis for large hunting quotas, to be much more moderate when it comes to wolf management.” -Melissa Smith, Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf and Wildlife

“The Wisconsin Wolf Front United and its over 4,000 Wisconsin students, call for an immediate return of full protection of wolves as guaranteed under the Endangered Species Act. We are appalled by the inability of Wisconsin to safeguard wolves and the anti-science-based slaughter this year. If Wisconsin is allowed to continue sole authority over wolf management, additional slaughter and a crash in the wolf population will continue to occur.” -Adam Kassulke, Wisconsin Wolf Front United

“States ignore predator biology and science regarding Wolves and push through “politically motivated” legislation based on “cultural hatred” for predators. These legislators (many of them ranchers) have no business promoting any legislation regarding wild animals let alone wildlife policy based in misinformation.” -William Huard, Good Wolf

“Wolves in the Great Lakes Region are all connected by their dispersal. After the wolf slaughter this past February in Wisconsin, it is apparent wolves need continued federal protection.” -Nancy Warren, National Wolfwatcher Coalition

“The Wisconsin DNR has clearly demonstrated in the last 9 years they cannot protect Gray Wolves from trophy hunters and poachers. They are deaf to the citizens’ wishes to promote nonlethal coexistence.” -Melanie Weberg, League of Humane Voters-Wisconsin

“The impact of the federal delisting was immediate in the Alliance for Animal’s home state, Wisconsin — ruthless and nearly uninhibited killing of an animal that had been nearly extirpated before protections of the ESA and we are headed back in that direction without appropriate federal safeguards.” -Kristin M. Schran, Alliance For Animals

“The war on wolves is real. There is so much fiction-based information shared with the public, and it is incredibly disheartening to those who understand the truth—proven, scientific evidence on how wolves are an essential apex predator necessary for our ecosystems to thrive. We hope that influential leaders who oversee the state protection of wolves will listen to the science, the data, and the truth when making decisions that impact the future of their species, which will impact our generation and many generations to come. Wolves lost federal protections with very little planning in place. Who will step up to be a voice for them before it’s too late?” -Betsy Klein, Plan B For Wolves

“For a second time in U.S. history, we are witness to a mass killing of wolves across the country. Restoring federal protections to wolves is vital to stop the slaughter.” -Karol Miller, The 06 Legacy

“Wisconsin’s first act of state wolf control resulted in the largest hound hunt for wolves in this nation’s history last February. Only the federal government can act now to prevent another slaughter in November.” -Rod Coronado, Wolf Patrol

To read the original press release from Animal Wellness Action, click here.

To read an op-ed on the issue from former Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service Dan Ashe, click here.

As part of the coalition seeking reinstatement of federal wolf protections, EARTHDAY.ORG remains committed to restoring and protecting biodiversity. Donate or become a member to support us in advocating for essential wildlife protections.