The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has sided with The HSUS and other animal welfare groups and ruled that federal protections for wolves under the Endangered Species Act should be maintained for 4,000 or so wolves inhabiting the northern reaches of the boreal forests of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. This was a ruling nervously anticipated by all parties to the case, and it’s an enormously significant win for conservation, the integrity of the Endangered Species Act, and for the wolves. I am proud that The HSUS brought and led this case, and that the decision has now been affirmed by two federal courts.
Specifically, the court, in a unanimous ruling of the three-judge panel, affirmed a U.S. District Court ruling from 2014 in favor of wolf protection, with one effect of the ruling triggering an abrupt halt to inhumane and unsporting trophy hunting, hounding, and commercial trapping programs in the states. (The states are still allowed to control individual problem wolves.)
The prior U.S. District Court ruling came just six weeks after voters in Michigan in November 2014 soundly rejected a trophy hunting season in the state, and also rejected the idea of a seven-member group of political appointees making decisions about whether wolves should be hunted or trapped. The two Michigan statewide votes were the first-ever plebiscites on the treatment of wolves, and in both cases, the people wanted more wolf protection, not less.
The federal appeals court ruling issued today comes in the midst of a pitched battle in Congress as some lawmakers from states inhabited by wolves are seeking to override the federal courts by banning the ability of citizens to seek judicial review, and to cherry-pick the wolves from the list of federally protected species. In fact, last week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved the Hunting Heritage Act, which included a provision to delist wolves in the Great Lakes. Before passing the bill to the full Senate, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., offered an amendment to strip out the wolf delisting provision, and it was defeated on a straight party-line vote of 10 – 11, with all Democrats voting to strip the anti-wolf provision from the bill (three Democrats did, to our disappointment, vote for the final bill, with the overreaching and reckless wolf delisting provision included). Backers of this attack on wolves are also trying to attach the same rider to the appropriations bill, as a way to hedge their political bets. The House Interior Appropriations Committee’s bill contains the same anti-wolf rider, along with language prohibiting the Department of the Interior from treating any gray wolves in the lower 48 states as endangered.
The ruling today should slow the effort to strip federal protections for wolves, because the reasoning of the court was intricate and hard for any serious-minded policy maker to ignore. The court did not say that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service cannot remove federal protections for wolves, but it did say that the professional agency failed to consider a number of key questions in seeking to hand off management authority to the states. In its ruling, the court chided the USFWS for taking a piecemeal approach to wolf recovery and “call[ing] it quits” too early. The court noted that “…when a species is already listed, the Service cannot review a single segment with blinders on, ignoring the continuing status of the species’ remnant.”
In short, the Fish and Wildlife Service can take a crack at a new rulemaking for delisting and may find a path if it properly assesses the status of wolves across the species’ historical range. But not yet, and not without bringing more science and analysis to the administrative review of the status of wolves.
Stepping back from our wins in the federal courts for Great Lakes wolves – and our ballot wins in Michigan – there is something more basic to consider: sport and trophy hunting programs targeting wolves are an anachronism, are anti-ecological, and diminish the economic health of regions with meaningful wolf populations. That’s the point I hope lawmakers on Capitol Hill will take stock of.
Not only are wolves scarce in number, they are inedible. There’s no real value in killing a wolf, as compared to a hunter killing a deer and consuming the meat. This killing is about an irrational hatred of wolves or an unsettling instinct to dominate and kill the most powerful animals who still roam our wildlands.
Wolves provide a wide range of ecological and economic services, and they do so for free. They act as a firewall against the spread of chronic wasting disease, which has had a devastating economic impact in southern Wisconsin where there are no wolves left. Wolves reduce densities of white-tailed deer, which in turn protects commercial forestry operations and agriculture crops by reducing deer overbrowsing. And by reducing deer densities, wolves can also help to mitigate the risk of vehicle-deer collisions. In short, wolves can benefit agriculture, public safety, forest and water quality, and ecosystem health.
They are also a lure for tourists at Isle Royale National Park, in the Boundary Waters region of Minnesota, and in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and northern Wisconsin. There are thousands of tourists who relish the idea of spotting a wild wolf or just want to feel the primal instinct of walking in habitats that wolves also tread. These tourists bring economic activity to rural regions. And while wolves occasionally kill livestock, that economic impact is negligible compared to the array of benefits they bring. What’s more, there are state and federal programs to reimburse ranchers for these rare losses, as well as state and federal wolf control programs that selectively target wolves causing a problem.
The courts are adjudicating disputes over the proper implementation of the Endangered Species Act. But only American citizens can settle a more important debate – our relationship with wide-ranging predators who’ve managed to survive past human onslaughts. We are at a point in our human evolution where we can recognize the rightful place of wolves and other predators and stop our needless attacks on them, finding both value in their presence and appreciation for the services they provide.
We might also find a little extra appreciation and sympathy for the wolf, who delivered the domesticated dog into our world and forever changed the course of human history for the better.