The Trump administration officially delisted the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act on Thursday, ending more than 45 years of federal protections for the species.
“The gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery,” said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in a speech at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge. “Today’s announcement simply reflects the determination that this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law.”
Wolves were once present throughout North America, but government-sponsored campaigns in the 1930s led to the collapse of the majority of their populations in the lower 48 states. The apex predator’s absence altered numerous ecosystems but allowed ranching to thrive throughout the western United States.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first listed the wolf as endangered in 1967.
In the West, federal wolf recovery efforts have largely focused on the northern Rockies, including Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, part of Utah, and eastern Oregon and Washington. Wolves in those areas were delisted in 2008, and a 2013 status review determined that they have since expanded into western Oregon and Washington.
There are now approximately 6,000 wolves in the lower 48 states, which FWS said exceeds the recovery goals of both the Great Lakes and northern Rockies populations.
But environmental groups say that reverting back to state policies (some of which do not regulate killing wolves) could erase progress that’s already been made.
“Gray wolves occupy only a fraction of their former range and need continued federal protection to fully recover,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. “We will be taking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court to defend this iconic species.”
Congressman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) praised the change, which he said came after he personally asked the Office of Management and Budget to finalize the rule, which was first proposed last year.
“This move will allow our state wildlife officials to manage the wolves more effectively by allowing for a single management plan under local control,” Walden said.
In western Oregon, stripped federal protections don’t mean it’s open season for wolves. But ranchers may have some recourse if their livestock is threatened by wolf packs.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s West Wolf Management Zone includes all of Klamath County and the western half of Lake County south of Highway 26 and west of Highway 395. Within that zone are “areas of known wolf activity” where packs have become established — like the Rogue Pack, whose area overlaps with ranches near Fort Klamath. ODFW communicates with livestock producers in these areas about wolf conservation and non-lethal protection measures like fencing, protection dogs and alarms.
Instead of the FWS regulating what ranchers can do when wolves attack livestock, ODFW rules will apply once the wolf’s official delisting goes into effect 60 days after being entered into the federal register. ODFW permits lethal control of wolves that attack livestock only if the producer has disposed of or neutralized “reasonably accessible unnatural attractants of potential wolf-livestock conflict” like bones and carcasses at least seven days prior to the incident, as well as used at least one non-lethal measure approved by ODFW to protect calves, nursing cattle, sheep or other operations other than open range activities prior to the incident. In many cases, those mitigation measures should be documented by the landowner.
The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association agreed with Walden that federal protections further complicated the state’s existing conservation plan for gray wolves.
“Producers have endured unacceptable personal stress, ongoing chronic confirmed and unconfirmed predation as well as loss of production in the cattle they work so hard to protect,” an OCA release read. “This action will remove an unnecessary layer of management that has prevented responsible management for many years.”
Governor Kate Brown’s office maintains that Oregon’s wolf recovery plan is based on science and working well for all stakeholders, but that it needs federal protection across western states in order to remain effective.
“The timing of these proposed changes to federal wolf protections is suspect, and needlessly politicizes this issue,” said deputy communications director Charles Boyle. “Our wolf recovery plan is working in Oregon — we don’t need the federal administration to fix something that isn’t broken.”