Federal Judge to Hear Arguments Over Lifting Protections of Gray Wolves in Parts of U.S.

A federal judge will begin to hear arguments on the prospect of lifting protections for gray wolves in the West and Midwest.

The decision was made by U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White during a hearing regarding whether gray wolves were properly classified under the Endangered Species Act. An attorney for the U.S. Justice Department argued that they were not, saying that gray wolves, in particular, are not distinct enough to make up a species.

"Congress was very clear in the statute," argued Michael Eitel of the Justice Department's natural resources division, "if there is not that species, the service does not have the ability to regulate it."

However, wildlife advocates said that allowing hunters to trap wolves could reverse the gray wolf's growing recovery numbers after being labeled as an endangered species. In order to protect the animals, they are advocating to put them back under the act's protection.

"They cannot take this shortcut," said Earthjustice lawyer Kristen Boyles, who is representing multiple wildlife groups. "One of the casualties of the Fish and Wildlife Service argument is that we are not here today talking about the key issues of what protections wolves need, where those protections are needed."

Republican states argued that lifting such restrictions will help curb what they said is an increase in the wolf population. Furthermore, some federal officials said that restrictions are unnecessary because gray wolves have become resilient enough to regain their numbers after being hunted.

Wolves were nearly wiped out in most regions of the United States by the 1930s. Due to protective measures, the populations across many states have increased, although wildlife advocates argue that more still needs to be done.

The hearing is expected to continue in the coming days.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Gray Wolf Oregon
Government attorneys are due before a federal judge to defend a decision from the waning days of the Trump administration to lift protections for gray wolves across most of the U.S. Friday's hearing before U.S. In this December 4, 2014, file photo, released by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, a wolf from the Snake River Pack passes by a remote camera in eastern Wallowa County, Oregon. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife via AP, File

At stake is the future of a species whose recovery from near-extinction has been heralded as a historic conservation success. That recovery also has brought bitter blowback from hunters and farmers angered over wolf attacks on big game herds and livestock.

Judge White questioned if the government's approach amounted to a "back door" way to remove protections.

Eitel said in response that the wildlife service was "not trying to skirt its obligations" to wolf recovery, but attorneys for the wildlife groups insisted it was.

The lawsuit does not cover wolves in all or portions of six states in the northern U.S. Rocky Mountains, where the animals lost protection a decade ago.

Federal officials in September said they would consider if those protections should be restored in western states in response to loosened hunting rules in Idaho and Montana. That could take a year or longer.

In Wisconsin, where hunters surpassed a state harvest quota last winter and killed 218 wolves in just four days, this season's hunt was recently put on hold by a state judge, two weeks before it was set to begin.

Conservatives on a state wildlife board had set Wisconsin's kill limit at 300 wolves, prompting a lawsuit from wildlife advocacy groups and a federal lawsuit from a half-dozen Chippewa tribes, which consider the wolf sacred.

A state agency controlled by Democratic Governor Tony Evers later took the unprecedented step of unilaterally reducing the kill limit to 130 wolves, openly defying the board.

A remnant population in the western Great Lakes region has since expanded to some 4,400 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

More than 2,000 wolves occupy six states in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest after the animals from Canada were reintroduced in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park starting in 1995. Protections for wolves in the Rockies were lifted over the last decade and hunting of them is allowed.

Wyoming also allows wolf hunting, and officials are considering wolf hunting seasons in Michigan and Minnesota.

The Biden administration's defense of the removal of protections under Trump has angered environmentalists who hoped the election of the Democrat would shift U.S. policy on wolves.

Democratic and Republican administrations alike, going back to former President George W. Bush, have sought to remove or scale back federal wolf protections first enacted in 1974.

Gray Wolf Lamar Valley
Wildlife advocates said that allowing hunters to trap wolves could reverse the gray wolf's growing recovery numbers. Gray wolf running inside special acclimation pen, member of pack to be released into Lamar Valley wild in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming wolf reintroduction program at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by William F. Campbell/Getty Images