Wolves lose critical protections that have staved off extinction

The Lower 48 is about to become a very dangerous place for wolves.

gray wolf
Photo: We’re working to protect wolves after the Interior Department removed them from the federal endangered species list. Credit: The Wasp Factory via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Alex Ferraro

The Lower 48 is about to become a very dangerous place for wolves.

In October 2020, in a long-planned move, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced that it would remove gray wolves from the federal endangered species list. This move ignores the reality on the ground: While the protections afforded by being on the endangered species list has helped wolves come back from the brink of extinction, they’re not out of the woods yet. Only 5,000 to 6,000 wolves remain in the continental U.S.

Without protection, wolves face a grim future

Here’s what the loss of Endangered Species Act protections will mean for wolves: Without federal protection, they’ll be subject to the various state and local laws in the areas where they live — many of which allow them to be hunted, trapped and even poisoned with little restriction.

Historically, this hasn’t turned out well for wolves. When wolves temporarily lost federal protections in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, more than a third of their population was killed in just three years — until a federal court ruling in 2015 stopped the slaughter. In Wyoming, where wolves already lack federal protection, the state is explicitly trying to wipe out at least half of its wolf population. In most of the state, you can shoot a wolf on sight for any reason, no permits necessary and no questions asked. In Idaho, lack of federal protection has led to the deaths of 500 wolves in the past year alone.

Wolves still need the ESA

That’s exactly what federal protections under the ESA are supposed to prevent. The idea at the core of the ESA is that it’s in our national interest to step in and save a species when local interests have pushed them near extinction.

By restricting the hunting and trapping of vulnerable species — and by protecting habitat critical to their recovery — the ESA allows species to rebound. And it works: 99 percent of the species protected under the ESA have survived.

We’re not giving up on wolves

The extinction of gray wolves would be an unbelievable loss for our nation and our planet, and we’re going to work to protect them. First and foremost, we’re campaigning to restore their protections under the ESA. With a new administration in the White House, we’re hopeful that we can persuade the Interior Department to reverse the delisting decision.

When the Trump administration began the delisting process in mid-2019, Environment America and our network partner Environmental Action rallied the public to submit more than 47,000 comments in support of keeping wolves on the endangered species list. With such widespread public support, we’re confident we can win.

Here’s what’s next

But in the meantime, we can’t ignore that individual states will be responsible for wolf management within their borders. In just the past two years, we’ve organized tens of thousands of people to oppose reckless wolf hunting in Idaho, Wyoming and Washington state; we’ll keep the momentum up in 2021 as we rally wolf lovers across the country to call for state-level protections for wolves and advocate against opening any new hunting seasons.

With a tide of support for wolf conservation in every state — and with the voices of people like you — we can protect these priceless creatures until their federal protections are restored.


Alex Ferraro