Gray Wolf
© Sam Parks

Gray Wolf

Gray Wolves in the Northern Rockies

Gray wolves once dominated the western landscape, but widespread killing virtually wiped them out in the lower 48 states by the 1940s. Today, wolves are back in the Northern Rockies thanks to a highly successful reintroduction program in central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park, and to dedicated conservation efforts. By the end of 2012, the estimated population was 1,674 wolves in the Northern Rockies region.

Over the years, despite many efforts by Defenders and other conservation groups to gain social acceptance for wolves on the ground, repeated attempts were made to prematurely strip federal protection for wolves in all or part of the Northern Rockies.

In 2009, the Bush administration made one more last-ditch attempt to strip federal protection for wolves across the Northern Rockies based on individual state management plans. The FWS moved forward with delisting wolves in Idaho and Montana, but not Wyoming, where the state’s plan was deemed inadequate. Defenders and 12 other conservation groups challenged the delisting and filed for a preliminary injunction to stop proposed wolf hunts. Though the injunction was denied and hunts began in Montana and Idaho, protection was reinstated in 2010 when the district court ruled in favor of Defenders, saying the decision to remove federal protection for wolves violated the Endangered Species Act.

Under intense political pressure from anti-wolf hunting and ranching organizations, Congress passed an appropriations amendment or “rider” in 2011 as part of a much larger, must-pass funding bill that reinstated the 2009 delisting rule and barred it from further judicial review. Under this amendment, federal protection was officially removed in Idaho and Montana, as well as in the western parts of Oregon and Washington.  The FWS later delisted the wolf in Wyoming as well, even though the state’s management plan was remarkably similar to one that the FWS had previously rejected. Defenders is actively challenging the Wyoming delisting in court.

Aggressive wolf hunts have already resumed in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. For example, Idaho Department of Fish and Game has adopted year-round hunting and trapping in parts of the state and Wyoming has eliminated protection for wolves in over 80% of the state. As a result, the future of wolf recovery across the region remains uncertain.