Alanna Mayham

(CN) — To comply with a federal court order, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a final rule on Thursday to reinstate federal protections for gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act in 45 U.S. states.

It was nearly two years ago that U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White found the Trump administration improperly relied on gray wolf population recoveries in the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains when it decided in October 2020 that wolves across the contiguous U.S. no long qualified for federal protection.

At the time, service officials said the delisting marked the successful recovery of a previously threatened species, which first made the list in 1978. Critics said the agency based its decision on flawed legal analyses and junk science; the government’s own experts said the delisting proposal lacked sufficient scientific evidence and was premature.

Despite fierce opposition from conservation groups, President Joe Biden’s administration defended the delisting of gray wolves, which had reportedly been in the works for years before being finalized under President Donald Trump.

Judge White’s ruling on Feb. 10, 2022 reinstated federal protections that had been in place for gray wolves before the service’s final delisting rule, thereby relisting the wolves as threatened in Minnesota and endangered in all or parts of 44 U.S. states and Mexico.

The order also reinstated critical habitat designations in Minnesota and Michigan, though it didn't affect the status of gray wolves in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho or the eastern third of Washington and Oregon and north-central Utah. According to the service, those populations will retain their delisted status and management from the state and tribes.

But while Thursday’s rule is a win for gray wolves and the conservation groups who fought the delisting in three federal lawsuits, it is unclear whether the service will maintain protections in the near future.

The service joined multiple parties in appealing White’s order to the Ninth Circuit, all of which have been temporarily stayed until Feb. 2, 2024. By then, the service writes that it intends to submit a proposed rule regarding the listing status of gray wolves in the lower 48 U.S. states under the Endangered Species Act.

“Our status determination will be based on the best available information as of the time of publication,” the service writes in its final rule. “If the appeals described earlier in this document nonetheless proceed and the district court’s order is reversed, then the service will take appropriate action to comply with and implement the court of appeals’ judgment, including, if required, publishing another final rule reinstating the service’s 2020 delisting rule.”

Representatives of WildEarth Guardians, Defenders of Wildlife and Natural Resources Defense Council — organizations that led the three lawsuits against the service in 2021 — did not immediately respond to a request for comment.