WASHINGTON—The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling that vacated a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule to remove Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region, which includes Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. The ruling maintains federal protections for wolves and blocks the states from asserting control and opening up sport hunting and commercial trapping seasons targeting the animals.

The Humane Society of the United States and a coalition of wildlife protection groups, including Born Free USA, Help Our Wolves Live, and Friends of Animals and Their Environment, brought the lawsuit against the USFWS’s premature December 2011 delisting decision. The agency’s decision, which was overturned by the D.C. District Court in 2014, threatened the fragile remnants of the gray wolf population by confining current wolf populations to a small pockets of their former range. State officials in the Great Lakes region have expressed their intention to engage in reckless killing programs that would threaten wolves with the very same practices that pushed them to the brink of extinction in the first place.

Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation at The HSUS, said, “A federal appeals court has recognized that the basis for the delisting decision was flawed. Congress should respect the ruling relating to the management of wolves in the Great Lakes and allow the Fish and Wildlife Service to re-examine the broader conservation questions raised by the courts.”

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 [imperilment] status of the species’ remnant.”

Following federal delisting, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan rushed to institute trophy hunting and commercial trapping programs for wolves—exposing them to non-selective killing for the first time in more than 40 years. The states authorized some of the most abusive and unsporting practices, including hound hunting, snares, baiting, electronic calls and the use of leg hold traps, producing a body count of about 1,500 wolves over two hunting seasons.

The Michigan legislature also passed three separate laws to designate wolves as a game species, in its zeal to allow the state to authorize a trophy hunting and trapping season for wolves, and to undermine a fair election by Michigan voters on wolf hunting. However, in response to a referendum campaign launched by The HSUS and other animal welfare and conservation groups and Native American tribes, voters in Michigan soundly rejected sport hunting of wolves in a 2014 election in two separate referendums.

The States of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin and trophy hunting groups participated in the rulemaking process and also in this extensive the litigation in the courts, but they are now seeking assistance from Congress to legislatively remove wolves from the endangered species list. Wildlife conservation decisions should not be left to the whims of politicians, and the federal courts are quite clear on what’s required of the agency in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The court’s ruling requires that the USFWS re-engage stakeholders in a regulatory process that gives full effect to the purposes of the Endangered Species Act and addresses wolf recovery in a robust and depoliticized process.

The plaintiffs in the Great Lakes lawsuit were represented in the case by Schiff Hardin, LLP and attorneys within The HSUS’ Animal Protection Litigation section.

Great Lakes Wolves - ESA Listing Timeline

March 9, 1978 - Gray wolf listed as endangered throughout lower 48 states, except in Minnesota, where it was listed as threatened.

August 10, 1983 - Original § 4(d) rule for Minnesota (48 Fed. Reg. 36,256).

December 12, 1985 - Revised § 4(d) rule for Minnesota, allowing only “designated employees” or agents of MN DNR to take or kill depredating wolves without a permit, and requiring that all such taking be done in a humane manner (50 Fed. Reg. 50,792).

April 1, 2003 - FWS publishes a final rule downlisting wolves from endangered to threatened in Eastern and Western DPSs and retaining endangered status for wolves in Southwestern DPS, and publishes a final § 4(d) rule allowing lethal depredation control activities in these regions.

January 31, 2005 - Federal District Court in Oregon vacates April 1, 2003 downlisting rule (holding that FWS downlisted vast areas without correctly applying the ESA listing factors, in violation of the ESA and the FWS’s own DPS Policy).

August 19, 2005 - Federal District Court in Vermont vacates April 1, 2003 downlisting rule (holding that the rule does not comply with the ESA, the FWS’s own DPS Policy, or the notice and comment provisions of the APA).

April 1, 2005 - FWS issues § 10(a)(1)(A) permits to Wisconsin and Michigan to conduct lethal depredation control activities (the permits were vacated by the Federal District Court in Washington, DC based on violation of APA notice and comment requirements on September 13, 2005, but the states applied again and the permits were granted again on April 24, 2006).

August 9, 2006 - Federal District Court in Washington, DC enjoins Wisconsin § 10(a)(1)(A) permit; FWS revokes Michigan permit shortly thereafter (481 F. Supp. 2d 53).

February 8, 2007 - FWS publishes a final rule delisting wolves in Great Lakes DPS.

September 29, 2008 - Federal District Court in Washington, DC vacates February 8, 2007 delisting rule (holding that FWS failed to explain how its decision to create a DPS in order to remove all ESA protections from that population comports with the policy objectives of the ESA).

April 2, 2009 - FWS publishes a final rule delisting wolves in Great Lakes DPS.

July 2, 2009 - Federal District Court in Washington, DC issues order incorporating settlement agreement pursuant to which the FWS must withdraw the April 2, 2009 delisting rule (the FWS agreed that it had violated APA notice and comment requirements in issuing the April 2, 2009 rule).

December 28, 2011 - FWS publishes a final rule delisting wolves in Great Lakes DPS.

December 19, 2014 - Federal District Court in Washington, DC vacates December 28, 2011 delisting rule (holding: DPS designation can only be used to increase protections; FWS was not simply revising an existing listing; FWS impermissibly failed to address historical range loss; and FWS failed to adequately consider the threats of disease, threats of human-caused mortality, and the insufficiency of state regulatory measures).

August 1, 2017 - Federal Appeals Court for the District of Columbia Circuit affirms judgment vacating the December 28, 2011 final rule (holding that FWS fatally failed to reasonably analyze or consider the impacts of partial delisting to the remaining portion of the species, and the impacts of historical range loss).

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