A federal appeals court has ruled Endangered Species Act protections for wolves were unlawfully lifted in the Great Lakes region, potentially complicating delisting the predators elsewhere.
The “distinct population segment” of wolves in the Western Great Lakes region, which centers on Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, was removed from the federal list of threatened and endangered species in 2011.
With a population of roughly 4,400 in those three states, wolves had more than doubled recovery goals set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Humane Society of the U.S. challenged the delisting decision, arguing the agency couldn’t carve out such a regional “distinct population segment” with the goal of stripping its federal protections.
A federal judge overturned the delisting action and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has now upheld that decision, albeit on somewhat different grounds.
Contrary to U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell’s decision, the D.C. Circuit has ruled that protections for “distinct population segments” can be downgraded.
However, the D.C. Circuit has decided the Fish and Wildlife Service unlawfully failed to study the effects this regional delisting would have on the entirety of the U.S. wolf population.
For a protected species, “the Service cannot review a single segment with blinders on, ignoring the continuing status of the species’ remnant,” the opinion said.
This finding is significant for a proposal in 2013 to remove Endangered Species Act protections for wolves elsewhere in the U.S., which the Fish and Wildlife Service based partly on the delisting of the Great Lakes distinct population segment.
The agency determined that wolves outside the Great Lakes were no longer a valid species, but the D.C. Circuit said this “leftover group” cannot be left as an “orphan to the law.”
“Such a statutory dodge is the essence of arbitrary-and-capricious and ill-reasoned agency action,” the ruling said.
The D.C. Circuit’s decision indicates that federal authorities should try to delist wolves across the U.S. all at once, rather than region-by-region, said Ethan Lane, executive director of the Public Lands Council, which represents public lands cattle grazers.
“What they got their hand slapped for here is trying to do that in a piecemeal fashion,” Lane said.
It’s clear from the wolf population’s spread in the Northwest that the species has recovered, he said.
“You have a growing and thriving population,” Lane said. “It is time for that species to be removed from the endangered species list.”
Ralph Henry, attorney for the Humane Society of the U.S., said the Fish and Wildlife Service has become too “hyper focused” on certain populations of wolves without looking at the bigger picture.
The D.C. Circuit has made clear the agency must take a wider perspective, he said. “It can’t ignore impacts to the broader segment.”
In the case of wolves, the delisting would limit growth and expansion from the Great Lakes into surrounding regions, impairing genetic improvement that would otherwise occur, Henry said.
“You’ve created a regulatory moat around the current population,” he said.
However, the D.C. Circuit’s ruling is also likely to affect delisting decisions for segments of other species, such as grizzly bears in the Yellowstone region, Henry said.
“Questions are going to be asked if the agency took into account the impacts on the broader protected area,” he said.