Gray Wolves Spent a Year in the Crosshairs

The animal no longer enjoys protections under the Endangered Species Act

By Juliet Grable

December 28, 2021


Photo by Kari Cieszkiewicz/USFWS

In early February, officials with the Oregon State Police were alerted about a possible dead wolf in Union County, in northeastern Oregon. When troopers went to investigate, they found a gruesome scene: five dead wolves, all members of the Catherine Pack, apparently victims of poisoning. Over the next month, three more dead wolves were discovered in the county—all of them had been poisoned as well. 

“This incident reflects very poorly on what the public thinks of wolves,” says Sristi Kamal, Northwest senior representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “It highlights that we still have a lot of work to do to change people’s minds on the ground.” 

As of now, the poachings remain unsolved. Oregon State Police is entreating anyone with knowledge of the incidents to step forward, and several conservation and hunting groups have donated to a reward fund, which now stands at nearly $50,000. 

Between killings such as these, unfriendly legislation, and natural phenomena such as drought and wildfire, it’s been a tough year for wolves. The most recent troubles for the species started in November 2020, when the Trump administration, declaring the gray wolf recovered, removed Endangered Species Act protections for all wolf populations that still enjoyed federal safeguards at that time (except for two sub-populations in the Southwest and Southeast). 

“The gray wolf is already confronting a multitude of threats from a lack of genetic diversity to climate change,” the Global Indigenous Council said at the time in a statement on the delisting. “With this administration’s decision to delist it from the ESA, the gray wolf faces the prospect of trophy hunting and trapping with little in the way of regulatory restraint.” 

Environmental groups immediately challenged the decision, which took effect on January 4, 2021. Since then—and just as the Global Indigenous Council predicted—several Western states have adopted anti-wolf legislation driven more by politics than by science. 

Idaho is one of the worst offenders. The state has used hunting and trapping to manage the wolf population there since 2011, when wolves were delisted in the Northern Rockies. Then, last May, the state legislature went even further when it passed S.B. 1211. This bill established a permanent hunting season on private lands, removed limits on the number of wolves any individual could kill, and set up a bounty system through which private contractors could be reimbursed for killing wolves. Under the expanded regulations, hunters and trappers could potentially reduce Idaho’s wolf population by 90 percent.

“Entire packs are getting killed,” says Suzanne Asha Stone, cofounder of the Wood River Wolf Project in Idaho. “It's not wolf hunting anymore. This is an eradication campaign to decimate the wolf population.”

A consortium of conservation groups, led by Earthjustice, is challenging the state’s wolf-trapping rules, arguing that Canada lynx and grizzly bears—threatened species whose habitats overlap with wolves—are vulnerable to traps intended for wolves.

“Entire packs are getting killed. It's not wolf-hunting anymore. This is an eradication campaign to decimate the wolf population.”

Montana also approved a suite of anti-wolf bills last spring. In August, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to increase the state’s wolf harvest by extending the season, allowing night hunting, and sanctioning neck snaring and trap baiting. (Before then, only leg snares were allowed.) 

“Montana has always been pretty respected for its wildlife-management policy,” says Bonnie Rice, Greater Yellowstone/Northern Rockies senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club. “But these bills are a complete departure from science-based wolf management. The overall intent of the legislature was and is to reduce the population by about 85 percent through all these methods.” 

In a letter to the state’s governor and legislature, a group of professional wildlife biologists and managers condemned the new Montana laws, calling them “harmful to wildlife, harmful to the image of hunters, contrary to science, and wrong for Montana.” To avoid a lawsuit similar to the one filed against Idaho, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission made some small changes to protect grizzly bears and lynx from wolf traps.

Things are equally bad for wolves in parts of the Great Lakes region. Wisconsin law requires the state to hold a wolf-hunting season once the species is no longer federally listed. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) authorized a hunt for November, but under legal pressure from a group called Hunter Nation, a circuit court judge ordered the agency to move it up to February. The DNR set a quota of 119 wolves but sold over 1,500 licenses. In just three days, at least 218 wolves were killed, most using tracking hounds. (Wisconsin is the only state that allows hounds to be used for wolf hunting.) 

“The complete switch from protected status to a hyper-aggressive wolf hunt was astounding,” says Shawn Cantrell, vice president of field conservation programs for Defenders of Wildlife.

Native American nations decried the February slaughter and, in September, six Ojibwe tribes sued to stop the next hunt, which was slated for this past November, claiming it violates their treaty rights. Specifically, they claimed that the quota set by the DNR deprived tribes of their right to a “fair share.” (Not that the tribes have any intention of hunting wolves at present. The suit describes the Ojibwe’s special and long-standing relationship with the wolf, which they call Ma’iingan, and describes the important role of wolves in enhancing and maintaining ecosystems.)

Several wildlife advocacy groups also filed a lawsuit to stop the November hunt and overturn the Wisconsin law that mandates a wolf-hunting season. In response, a state court has put this winter’s hunt on hold. 

ESA relisting on the table

While conservation groups await a judgment on their challenge to the federal delisting, other developments are afoot. In August, President Joe Biden upheld Trump’s decision to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list. But the next month, responding to two petitions from conservation groups, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) announced it was initiating a 12-month status review to determine whether the gray wolf should be relisted as threatened or endangered in the Northern Rockies and/or across the western United States. Many tribes and wolf advocates believe we can’t wait that long and are calling on Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to use her authority to relist the gray wolf now.

In October, a tribal delegation traveled to Washington, DC, to present Secretary Haaland with the Wolf Treaty, a document signed by over 700 tribal nations that offers a blueprint for wolf management and recovery. Haaland didn’t meet with them, so the delegation met with Senator Cory Booker and Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian affairs, instead. Around that same time, Indigenous filmmakers also released a powerful short film to accompany the appeal and garner support for the relisting effort. 

In a statement to the Department of the Interior, the delegation expressed disappointment at Haaland’s failure to meet with them and pointed to President Biden’s promise to consult with tribal nations when creating policies that impact them. “For Indigenous people, the ESA wolf delisting, and the now ongoing decimation of the wolf by white trophy hunters, trappers, and bounty hunters, isn’t simply an ‘environmental’ or ‘wildlife’ issue, it is a social justice issue,” the statement said. 

Pressure for an emergency relisting is building, says Tara Thornton, deputy director of the Endangered Species Coalition. Sixty-two conservation groups have urged the federal government to “immediately relist the gray wolf and engage with Tribal nations on wolf management and protection.” Nearly two dozen senators, led by Senator Booker, and a bipartisan group of US representatives have appealed to Secretary Haaland to issue an emergency relisting, as have hundreds of scientists.

“The public is outraged,” Thornton says. “We spent millions of dollars to recover the species. To let states just slaughter them and dwindle their populations doesn’t make any sense.” 

Hazards and barriers

As the legal maneuvering continues, wolves face challenges aside from poaching and legal hunting and trapping. 

“It was a very challenging year for both livestock and wildlife,” says Zoe Hanley, Northwest program representative for Defenders of Wildlife, citing widespread drought and another devastating wildfire season. “Anecdotally, wolves were moving less because their prey [was] moving less [and] staying near water sources.” Livestock, which don’t move as quickly as native prey, become more vulnerable during drought.

Environmental threats and manmade hazards have a disproportionate impact in places where wolves are only starting to gain a toehold. In California, for example, the Lassen Pack—one of only two known wolf packs in the state—survived the massive Dixie Fire by taking refuge in a wet meadow. Another California wolf was not so lucky. OR-93, a male wolf whose wanderings penetrated deep into the Golden State last spring, was found dead near busy Interstate 5 in November with injuries consistent with a vehicle collision. 

Unfortunate as it was, OR-93’s death was by no means an anomaly. Vehicle collisions are a prime cause of the wolf mortalities. In Oregon, for example, four of the six human-caused wolf deaths in 2019 were due to highway collisions. 

In New Mexico, the Center for Biological Diversity reported that the border wall blocked a Mexican gray wolf from entering Mexico. According to Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the center, it’s the first documented case of the border wall separating two endangered wolf populations.  

On the bright side, several Western states have enacted legislation to fund wildlife corridors and enhance connectivity for wildlife, with more bills on the way. The newly signed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates $350 million for a new Wildlife Crossings Grant Program, which will fund habitat connectivity and safe wildlife corridor projects around the country. 

“Creating more corridors [will help] wolves migrate, especially when we have climate change and weather patterns [that force] species to move,” says Thornton.

Calling for coexistence

In today’s toxic political climate, anti-wolf legislation in states like Idaho and Montana has prompted wolf advocates and wolf adversaries to retreat into their respective corners. Even so, efforts to promote coexistence continue.

In Idaho, the Wood River Wolf Project, a collaborative project to deploy nonlethal strategies across 1,200 square kilometers in and around Blaine County, completed its 14th year this past summer. The project is focused on reducing sheep predation by wolves, as many shepherds use the rugged terrain for grazing. 

“The average loss is still the same—five sheep killed out of 20,000,” says Stone, adding that this is the lowest loss rate anywhere in the western United States where intensive sheep grazing overlaps with wolf populations. “It demonstrates overall that nonlethal measures are more effective at preventing losses of both livestock—in this case, sheep—and certainly of wolves.”

Elsewhere, Defenders of Wildlife has continued to deploy nonlethal tools and hold workshops on coexistence, especially in communities where wolves aren’t yet established. The organization also funds range riders to help guard livestock in parts of Washington State where wolves have killed domesticated animals. 

Wolves are still protected under state wildlife laws in Colorado, California, and the western parts of Oregon and Washington. But anti-wolf policies in one state or region can still impact the wolf populations in other states where they are still protected.

For example, legislation such as Idaho’s S.B. 1211 has “huge implications” for recovery elsewhere, says Hanley. “If Idaho can kill up to 90 percent of its wolves, it means far fewer dispersing wolves in Oregon and Washington, and [that] can impact both genetic diversity and timelines for recovery.”