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Judge asked to restore endangered species protections for gray wolves

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Conservationists urged a federal judge Friday to overturn a Trump administration rule that ended endangered species protections for gray wolves, arguing the decision was based on a flawed legal interpretation and junk science.

“A decision that an already listed species is no longer listable must be based on a valid reason, and Fish and Wildlife doesn’t have a valid reason here,” Earthjustice lawyer Kristen Boyles said during a virtual court hearing Friday.

The dispute stems from the Trump administration’s decision in October last year to end Endangered Species Act protections for most gray wolves in the lower 48 states, an outcome critics say was based on flawed analyses and a failure to consider the best available evidence.

More than 6,000 gray wolves roam prairies and mountainous regions in the United States today, a population that wildlife officials said last year “exceeded all conservation goals for recovery.” But groups like Defenders of Wildlife, which filed one of three federal lawsuits challenging the decision, say gray wolves still face serious threats to their survival, especially as states like Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan authorize new trophy hunting seasons.

During a Wisconsin wolf-hunting season this past February, at least 218 gray wolves were killed in a 48-hour time span, about 100 more than the legal limit. The number of wolves in Wisconsin declined about 30% in April 2021 from one year earlier, according to a peer-reviewed study cited in court briefs.

Despite fierce opposition by conservations groups, President Joe Biden’s administration has defended the decision to delist gray wolves, a move that had reportedly been planned for years before it was finalized under President Donald Trump.

Gray wolf advocates argue Fish and Wildlife improperly focused on population recovery in the Great Lakes region while dismissing significant threats to gray wolves in other areas, such as the Central Rockies and Pacific Coast.

But those complaints were not addressed on Friday. Rather, the court hearing focused on U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s conclusion that two populations of gray wolves in the lower 48 states, which were previously listed as endangered, were no longer considered “a valid protectable species.”

The agency argues that because certain portions of the larger gray wolf population — including those in the Northern Rocky Mountains, Wyoming and a Mexican wolf subspecies in the Southwest — were previously delisted from protected status, the larger population is no longer valid.

According to the Service, delisting determinations involve two phases: identifying if a valid “species” can be protected and then determining if that species warrants protection. In this case, Fish and Wildlife found the gray wolf population that had been protected since 1973 was no longer a legally valid protectable species.

“If there is not that species, then the Service doesn’t have jurisdiction to regulate it,” U.S. Justice Department lawyer Michael Eitel said.

Representing conservation groups, Boyles said that reasoning contradicts the text of the final rule published on Nov. 3, 2020, which states the delisting decision was based on analyses of threats to the population, not a finding that gray wolves are no longer eligible for protection.

“Fish and Wildlife cannot simply designate and then delist a distinct population segment,” Boyles said. “To delist based on a finding that a distinct population no longer qualifies as a species.”

She said the agency has a long history of misapplying the law, citing its prior attempts to end protections for certain gray wolf population segments in 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011, all of which were rejected by federal courts.

But U.S. District Judge Jeffery White, a George W. Bush appointee overseeing the case, said this time seems to be different. In prior legal challenges, the agency ran into problems by trying to delist a smaller segment of gray wolves within a broader protected group. In this case, the agency delisted two gray wolf populations that were listed as protected species.

“It seemed to the court like we were at a very different procedural posture here,” White said on Friday.

Boyles replied that while the agency’s strategy may have evolved, its legally flawed approach hasn’t changed.

“The impermissible end result is the same – that backdoor delisting based on a statutory dodge,” Boyles said. “This time the statutory dodge is this interpretation of these as un-listable species.”

Boyles urged Judge White to abolish the delisting rule and order the agency to reevaluate its decision based on the best available evidence and science.

If the judge finds the delisting rule was improper, Eitel and intervening defendants, including the National Rifle Association and hunting advocacy groups, asked that he keep the rule in place while Fish and Wildlife reconsiders a separate petition it denied when it issued the final rule. That petition, filed by conservation groups, asked the agency to define and protect gray wolves in the lower 48 states as one single population group, two Eastern and Western groups, or five regional populations.

After an hour of debate, Judge White took the arguments under submission.

Groups suing to restore Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves include Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, Oregon Wild, Humane Society of the United States, WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Cascadia Wildlands, Environmental Protections Information Center, Klamath Forest Alliance, Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands Center, The Lands Council, Wildlands Network, Kettle Range Conservation Group, Natural Resources Defense Council, and other groups that intervened in the lawsuits to support the plaintiffs’ position.

Defendants who intervened in the case to oppose gray wolf protections include the National Rifle Association, Safari Club International, Michigan Bear Hunters Association, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Sportsmens Alliance Foundation, Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association and the state of Utah.