By Kitty Block and Sara Amundson
Next month marks the one-year anniversary of the return of federal Endangered Species Act protections to wolves in most of the lower 48 states—a stunning victory that resulted from a lawsuit filed by the Humane Society of the United States and key allies. While we continue to celebrate that win, our effort to protect wolves from trophy hunting and trapping is far from over.
Last year’s relisting did not restore federal protections to wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains, where wolves have continued to face relentless persecution in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains region were previously stripped of protections through an act of Congress. So they were not included in the 2020 delisting decision that stripped all other wolves in the lower 48 states of protections, nor the overturning of that decision last year.
While Idaho and Montana were already killing high numbers of wolves, over the past two years these states enacted policies to dramatically increase the carnage. Bounties are being paid in both states to incentivize killing. In Idaho, entire wolf families—including pups—can be killed in their dens, and trophy hunting and trapping is allowed year-round in most of the state. In Montana, wolves can be killed using the most disturbing methods, including strangling neck snares, bait and night vision equipment. Wyoming also continues to allow ruthless trophy hunting and trapping. In 85% of the state, wolves can be killed on sight anytime of the year using any means—including running them down with snowmobiles.
Wolves in the eastern thirds of Oregon and Washington also lack federal protections, but these states do not currently allow them to be trophy hunted.
The extermination campaigns being waged in the Northern Rockies are set on drastically reducing their wolf populations. That’s why the Humane Society of the United States, the Humane Society Legislative Fund and our allies petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to immediately restore Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies back in 2021. Last August, we joined with other groups and filed a new lawsuit challenging the federal government’s delay in acting on our petition. (You can add your voice to calls for relisting these wolves.)
We are doing all that we can to protect wolves still targeted by trophy hunters, as well as working to prevent threats to wolves in situations where they may be at-risk if they lose their federal protections again. One pressure point involves our effort to influence how state management plans are crafted, which we’re doing by rallying state residents to speak out. State wolf management plans typically describe management strategy; guidelines for population monitoring; and details on how agencies will respond to conflicts, approach public education and research and, in some cases, decide on trophy hunting and trapping seasons.
The process for creating or updating a state’s wolf management plan often begins with convening a stakeholder advisory group to provide input and recommendations on what the plan should look like. While these groups are typically presented as balanced bodies that encompass all perspectives on wolves, they are usually heavily weighted to trophy hunting and agricultural interests, and elected officials often hold similar biases. For example, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte—who allowed those draconian wolf-killing laws in his state to pass in 2021 and who himself illegally killed a Yellowstone wolf in 2020—recently directed the state’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks department to develop a new wolf management plan that perpetuates cruel treatment of wolves. Idaho also announced they will be releasing an updated plan for public comment that aims to slash the wolf population to just 500 animals.
When special interests force the hand of state wildlife departments, the voice and authority of the vast majority of residents who value wolves and want them protected are drowned out by those few who want to kill them. That’s why we need to ensure the strongest possible reaction from those who care.
When people who want to protect wolves speak out, it helps to counteract the power of special interest groups over state management plans. Even where wolves have regained federal protections, it’s important to encode protections in the management plans in case they lose federal protections again.
Last year, in the Great Lakes region, Michigan and Minnesota finalized their updated plans. Thanks in large part to the advocacy of organizations like ours and our supporters, these plans were significant improvements because they did not perpetuate the bias and weakness of previous plans. For example, Michigan’s updated plan includes hundreds of new scientific citations and more accurate information regarding the rarity of conflicts, while Minnesota’s clarifies that the state does not have a maximum wolf population goal and is silent on the question of whether the state will hold a trophy hunting and trapping season if wolves lose their federal protections again.
Wisconsin is now accepting public input on its wolf management plan through February 28. Like Michigan and Minnesota’s plans, Wisconsin’s draft update is not perfect, but does include some improvements. It removes a numerical wolf population management goal and takes a step toward prioritizing nonlethal methods to prevent conflicts with livestock. While Wisconsin law mandates that a trophy hunting and trapping season should commence when wolves are no longer federally protected, the draft update includes provisions designed to rein in some of the harms caused by these seasons. We’ve put together a guide for Wisconsin residents wishing to communicate their views.
Meanwhile, Colorado is working to develop its first wolf restoration and management plan, anticipating the restoration of wolves there by year’s end. The state is accepting public input on a draft plan through Feb. 22. While Colorado’s draft plan is an important step toward restoring wolves to the state, key issues must be resolved to align the plan with sound science, responsible ethics and public values. It is imperative that advocates speak up for wolves in Colorado, and we’ve made it easy to do with our guide.
Slowly but surely, change is coming. While recent stakeholder advisory groups in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin were heavily influenced by trophy hunters and livestock owners, we and other humane advocates also participated to provide meaningful input. As the number of people who participate in hunting and trapping continues to decline, some state agencies are beginning to recognize that they must better reflect the perspectives of those who value wildlife for its own sake and not simply as targets for consumptive use. We must continue to speak up for wolves and remind those in power that state wildlife agencies must manage wildlife according to sound science and ethics.
Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.