The Biden administration appealed the federal court ruling that sent gray wolves back onto the endangered species list, emphasizing the unsettled protection status of the iconic apex predator across the United States.
The US Department of Justice recently filed a notice of appeal to the decision of a federal judge in California who, in February, ordered the gray wolf back under the safeguards of the Endangered Species Act. Animal welfares advocate and hunting proponents reacted to the news with uncertainty – neither camp is sure what this means for the future of America’s largest wild canine.
Meanwhile, Michigan wildlife regulators are in the final stages of writing a plan to care for the state’s 700-some wolves should the responsibility ever shift away from federal authorities.
The gray wolf has steadily recovered from extirpation across the Upper Peninsula during the last 20 years. The species has repeatedly been shielded – and not shielded – by endangered species protections either because of policy changes or court orders. The status has changed half a dozen times.
Most recently, US District Judge Jeffrey White ruled when the US Fish and Wildlife Service delisted wolves in the last days of the Trump administration officials failed to show wolf populations could be sustained in the Midwest and parts of the West without federal protections. The agency also failed to adequately consider threats to the species outside those core areas, White said.
The flip-flopping status and constant legal fights make for shifting legal sands beneath the feet of what is for many a beloved top predator, but which can sometimes be hated by those who have lost pets or livestock to wolf predation.
Nichole Biber, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians citizen and Wolf Preservation Team leader for the Anishinaabek Caucus, said it is “difficult and disturbing to see the continual politicization of wolf protection and conservation,” given the species’ existence remains so closely tied to environmental stewardship and restoration.
“Going back and forth on the question of whether to sanction killing the few packs that remain only deters the long-overdue necessity of pursuing the myriad benefits of coexistence. For tribal people who adhere to our traditional teachings, the wolf is a sacred animal whose spiritual guidance and important caretaking role cannot be replaced,” Biber said.
Animal rights groups balked at the legal development.
The president of nonprofit organization Defenders of Wildlife, a plaintiff organization to the legal case, said the federal government filing to appeal the judge’s order “marks a stunning and supremely disappointing reversal” by the administration.
“Despite President Biden’s warnings about the looming threat of biodiversity loss, his administration is attempting to quash a significant ecological victory,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark.
The Michigan state director for the Humane Society of the United States said the nonprofit considered the order by the US District Court judge a major victory for wolves across the country.
“We’d be extremely disappointed if the federal government chose to align itself with trophy hunting interest groups by doubling down in defense of the prior administration’s unlawful, unpopular delisting. There is still time to change course and we hope the administration will do so,” said Molly Tamulevich.
All of Michigan’s wolves live in the Upper Peninsula, where residents began to have more negative interactions with them as the number of animals grew through the years. State officials have documented both pet and livestock losses to wolf attacks.
Many Yoopers are tired of the back-and-forth legal pattern.
“I don’t know, how many times has the wolf been delisted and relisted? I mean, five, six times? I mean, we’re really making a mockery of the Endangered Species Act,” said Gary Gorniak, president of the Straits Area Sportsman’s Club.
His group supports state wildlife officials with the Department of Natural Resources setting regulations for an annual wolf hunt to help keep the population in check. The Upper Peninsula is “overrun” with wolves and a science-based wolf hunt should be a tool available to state regulators since the species’ recovery has been so successful, Gorniak said.
A statewide hunting organization echoed his sentiments.
Amy Trotter, executive director of Michigan United Conservation Clubs, said while they are pleased the administration is taking this step to continue assessing legal options, they remain unsure whether it indicates anything about a decision to back up biologists at the federal Fish and Wildlife Service who recommended de-listing wolves.
“Limiting state management of wolves continues to place an undue burden on UP residents and removes tools from the Michigan DNR to manage ecosystems holistically,” she said.
Trotter argued the Endangered Species Act served its intended purpose for wolves in the Great Lakes region, but that without reform of the delisting process, MUCC has little hope the law “will cease to be weaponized against its own victories.”
State officials are amid a wolf management plan update; the next Michigan Wolf Management Advisory Council meeting is set for May 16-17 in Marquette, when that group’s final recommendations to state wildlife regulators will be wrapped.
“Our intent is to have an updated wolf management plan in place regardless of what happens at the federal level,” said Ed Golder, DNR Spokesperson.
Michigan officials are legally responsible to oversee control of wolves when they are delisted, and to protect the species under federal law when under endangered species safeguards.
Federal judge restores wolf protections, derails Michigan’s hunting talks
Wolves are endangered again, but pressure for a Michigan hunt remains
US wildlife officials aim to remove gray wolf endangered species protections in 2020
DNR calls first Michigan wolf hunt a ‘success;’ issue to continue to 2014 ballot