Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected their petitions to relist the gray wolf, wildlife advocates have announced their plans to take their concern to the courts.

On Wednesday, 15 organizations sent 60-day notices to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saying they would sue the agency over its decision, issued Friday, that gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains don’t warrant an Endangered Species listing.

Eleven of the organizations are suing together and say the not-warranted finding ignores obvious threats to the species, runs contrary to the best-available science, and relies on flawed population models. Those organizations include Western Watersheds Project, Western Environmental Law Center, International Wildlife Coexistence Network, Predator Defense, Protect the Wolves, Trap Free Montana, WildEarth Guardians, Wilderness Watch, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Clearwater, and Nimiipuu Protecting Our Environment.

Another four organizations have submitted their own notice of intent, making similar charges that the Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t following the best available science. They say the agency is relying on overestimates of wolf populations that are calculated by the states. Those organizations include the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Humane Society of the United States and the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

In mid-November, a Bozeman researcher released a yet-to-be-published research paper that questioned Montana’s wolf population model - the Integrated Patch Occupancy Model or iPOM - saying he’d found statistical flaws that bias the model toward higher population numbers.

At the end of 2022, the iPOM estimated Montana’s wolf population to be approximately 1,100 wolves down from the last peak in 2020 of 1,160. The largest population estimate of 1,250 was in 2011, based on iPOM modeling, but the previous population model produced an estimate of 975 wolves in 2011.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Park’s Wolf Harvest webpage, 246 wolves have been trapped or shot this season since September, and the season runs through March 15. Last winter, a total of 258 wolves were killed, so this year is on par to remove the same number of wolves.

“The current killing regimes in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming put wolves at obvious risk of extinction in the foreseeable future, and this core population is key to wolf survival in the West,” said Erik Molvar, Western Watersheds Project executive director in a release. “Even if the states’ population estimates were defensible–and they aren’t, according to recent scientific analyses–the feds are underestimating the extinction agendas of anti-wolf state governments and the small and tentative state of recovering wolf populations elsewhere in the West.”

On Friday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that relisting the gray wolf in the Northern Rocky Mountains was not warranted because “wolves are not at risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future.”

The law defines a species as endangered if it’s in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A species qualifies as threatened if it’s likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

As of December 2022, approximately 2,800 wolves were distributed across at least 286 packs in seven Western states, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service release. Although that population number is based on state estimates, the organizations may have a hard time arguing that wolves are nearing extinction across a significant portion of their range.

The agency said it conducted a peer-reviewed assessment of the situation using computer modeling and input from states, tribes, universities and the public. The model assessed various threats, including human-caused mortality, existing regulatory mechanisms, and disease, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service release.

“This population size and widespread distribution contribute to the resiliency and redundancy of wolves in this region. The population maintains high genetic diversity and connectivity, further supporting their ability to adapt to future changes,” the release said.

Congress delisted wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming in 2011. However, the state of Wyoming wasn’t allowed to manage wolves until 2017 because it intended to manage wolves as vermin and allow them to be shot on sight.

Wolves throughout the lower 48 states were delisted in 2020. In February, an experimental population of wolves was reintroduced into Colorado.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at