On February 10, 2022, a federal judge in California struck down a Trump-era rule issued in January 2021 that removed the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act’s (ESA) List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) responded by drafting legislation that would require the Secretary of the Interior to delist the gray wolf in Wyoming and the Western Great Lakes region which includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
The legislation includes language that bars judicial review of the bill and prohibits the Secretary of the Interior from considering any other statute or regulation that would normally apply to delisting a protected species. This would essentially codify state-by-state regulation of the wolf population in the Western Great Lakes and Wyoming, which would prevent future limitations on state powers over such regulations.
It is highly unlikely that Sen. Johnson’s bill will be signed into law due to conflicts with the ESA that governs the listing and delisting of species, which gives listing authority only to the agencies, not the legislature. However, the gray wolf is still unprotected from arbitrary state regulations. Any time the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) delists the gray wolf, the species is subject to state management.
The gray wolf’s status as a recovered species is not sustainable under this state-by-state model for a couple of key reasons. First, states where wolf populations thrive also tend to have the most lenient hunting regulations in the country. Those statewide regulations often vary greatly regarding quotas, hunting seasons, and trapping methods. For instance, Montana currently allows each person to tag up to 20 wolves, 10 of which can be hunted and the other 10 trapped. On the other hand, when Wisconsin holds wolf hunts each registered hunter can only tag a single wolf. Similarly, states such as Wisconsin and Wyoming seem to set their statewide harvesting quotas at around 15% of the total wolf population, while Idaho allows hunters to kill up to 90% of its wolf population with no tag limits per hunter.
Second, wolves are wild animals that do not belong to any particular state. In fact, wolf packs in the Western Great Lakes region defend territories that average anywhere from 25 to 100 square miles. Such territories can easily stretch across state lines subjecting the pack to different sets of regulations. Thus leading to inconsistencies in monitoring hunting quotas and pack populations, which could result in a pack losing more members than is deemed sustainable.
Unfortunately, Montana’s 2021 wolf hunt season demonstrated precisely how one state’s regulations traverse state lines and harm wolves managed by other entities. Wolves in Yellowstone National Park, which covers a small portion of land in southwest Montana, are protected from hunting so long as they remain within the park’s boundaries. This protection was previously extended into two specified “management” units in Montana where only one wolf per unit could be harvested each year. But this last season, Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission set the harvesting quota for the region covering these two units at 82 wolves. Twenty Yellowstone wolves—an estimated 20% of the population—were harvested as a result.
Time and again, state management of the gray wolf was unsustainable and ultimately resulted in the relisting of the species. To prevent the irreversible eradication of this keystone species in the U.S., Congress must first strike down Sen. Johnson’s legislation that aims to codify state-regulated wolf population management. Then, the Fish and Wildlife Service must fulfill its obligation under the ESA to provide an adequate five-year collaborative monitoring period for states regaining control of their wolf population management. Finally, the FWS and the Department of the Interior should assess the required minimum population numbers for delisting the gray wolf and provide clarification as to whether these limits indicate a floor to be reached or a ceiling to be met.
Jacob Fischler, Judge restores federal protections for gray wolves, except in Northern Rockies, Wis. Exam’r (Feb. 11, 2022), https://wisconsinexaminer.com/brief/judge-restores-federal-protections-for-gray-wolves-except-in-northern-rockies/ [https://perma.cc/CUV3-9DSH].
S.3738, 117th Cong. (2022).
 Kyle Hey, Top 10 Most Hunter Friendly States, Bowhunting Blog (Jul. 21, 2021), https://www.bowhunting.com/blog/2019/07/24/top-10-most-hunter-friendly-states/ [https://perma.cc/K4F7-HXK8].
See 2021-2022 Gray Wolf Hunting & Trapping Seasons & General Rules, Idaho Dept. of Fish & Game https://idfg.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/seasons-rules-big-game-2021-wolf.pdf [https://perma.cc/9VKZ-5LMF]; February 2021 Wolf Hunting and Trapping Regulations, Wisc. Dept. of Nat. Res. https://widnr.widen.net/content/klzgqcxnum/pdf/2021_Wolf_Regulations.pdf [https://perma.cc/8QRA-A2P7]; Hunting and Trapping Regulations (2021), Mont. Fish, Wildlife, & Parks https://fwp.mt.gov/binaries/content/assets/fwp/hunt/regulations/2021/2021-wolf-final-for-web.pdf [https://perma.cc/MLY2-GCYH].
Hunting and Trapping Regulations (2021), Mont. Fish, Wildlife, & Parks https://fwp.mt.gov/binaries/content/assets/fwp/hunt/regulations/2021/2021-wolf-final-for-web.pdf [https://perma.cc/MLY2-GCYH].
WI Stat § 29.185(7)(a) (2019).
Will Cushman, Why the Impact of Wisconsin’s February Wolf Hunt Is So Uncertain, PBS Wis. (Feb. 23, 2021), https://pbswisconsin.org/news-item/wiscontext-why-the-impact-of-wisconsins-february-wolf-hunt-is-so-uncertain/. [https://perma.cc/S7K5-TP8X]; Jessie Opoien, A guide to the legal battles over Wisconsin’s wolf hunt, The Capital Times (Sep. 4, 2021), https://madison.com/ct/news/local/govt-and-politics/election-matters/a-guide-to-the-legal-battles-over-wisconsin-s-wolf-hunt/article_d4b11d0b-d19e-5091-955f-c2a677fedc7c.html [https://perma.cc/E38S-SLJY];Brendan Lachance, Wyoming reports at least 327 wolves; G&F says population above de-listing criteria for 19th year in a row, Oil City News (May 18, 2021), https://oilcity.news/community/animals/2021/05/18/wyoming-reports-at-least-327-wolves-gf-says-population-above-de-listing-criteria-for-19th-year-in-a-row/ [https://perma.cc/2LD4-79GG];Nicole Pollack, 47 gray wolf tags to be issued for 2021 hunt, Casper Star Trib. (Aug. 22, 2021), https://trib.com/business/energy/47-gray-wolf-tags-to-be-issued-for-2021-hunt/article_5d801a32-5ba9-5aa0-940d-10038496c76d.html [https://perma.cc/EK7A-CH8N];Emily Jones, Groups prepare to sue Idaho over new wolf hunting laws, Idaho Mountain Exp. (Jul. 21, 2021), https://www.mtexpress.com/news/environment/groups-prepare-to-sue-idaho-over-new-wolf-hunting-laws/article_8fa8efdc-e9b0-11eb-b5cb-b3d469c4c72f.html#:~:text=Idaho’s%20newest%20wolf%20hunting%20law,90%25%20of%20state’s%20wolf%20population [https://perma.cc/8W3Y-J3FT].
International Wolf Center, Biology & Behavior, https://wolf.org/wolf-info/basic-wolf-info/biology-and-behavior/ (last visited Apr. 11, 2022) [https://perma.cc/QLS8-DADB].
Juliet Grable, Without Federal Protection, Yellowstone’s Wolves Are Being Decimated, Sierra Club (Jan. 26, 2022), https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/without-federal-protection-yellowstone-s-wolves-are-being-decimated#:~:text=Park%20rangers%20eliminated%20the%20last,their%20presence%20has%20boosted%20biodiversity [https://perma.cc/TL85-7FLW].
Center for Biological Diversity, U.S. Wolf Action Timeline, https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/gray_wolves/action_timeline.html (last visited Apr. 11, 2022) [https://perma.cc/K83Z-XSSH].