Alexandra Jones

WASHINGTON (CN) — Resolving a suit filed by a biological conservation group, a D.C. federal judge approved a settlement Thursday wherein the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to draft a new recovery plan for gray wolves across the country within the next two years.

The settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity says the draft must be completed within the two-year timeline unless the agency finds that doing so would not help the wolves’ conservation.

Collette Adkins, the center’s lead attorney on the case, applauded the settlement’s approval Thursday.

“We’ve long pushed for a new, comprehensive plan to guide gray wolf recovery, so this win is a big deal for us and the wolves,” Adkins said in a statement. “We’re hopeful that the Fish and Wildlife Service will finally analyze what’s needed for real wolf recovery in this country, rather than once again try to illegally and prematurely delist wolves.”

In line with the settlement’s terms, the Fish and Wildlife Service announced the launch of a new effort to foster a national dialogue around how communities can live with gray wolves that will be led by Francine Madden, with Constructive Conflict LLC.

“To foster the long-term conservation of wolves and address the concerns of varied communities, the service recognizes a need to bring interested members of the public together for transparent and thoughtful conversations,” a post on the service’s website announced, seeking input on “conflict prevention, long-term stability and community security.”

A representative from the service did not immediately respond for comment on the settlement Thursday.

The agreement comes four months after U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich faulted the federal government for failing to develop such a plan under the Endangered Species Act.

The agency’s now-standing recovery plan for the gray wolf was one developed in 1992 and was last updated more than a decade ago in 2012. The plan has separate treatments for the eastern timber wolf in Minnesota, the delisted gray wolf population in the northern Rocky Mountains and the Mexican gray wolf in the Southwest.

Acknowledging that the agency has targeted recovery plans for these three subspecies, Friedrich had agreed with the Center for Biological Diversity in August that the agency’s wolf-recovery planning — focused on populations of the species in three separate geographic areas — failed to create a comprehensive plan that offers a big-picture look at wolf population recovery across the country.

“None of the plans the agency has produced ‘incorporate[s]’ ‘a description of such site-specific management actions as may be necessary to achieve the plan’s goal for the conservation and survival of the species’,” Friedrich wrote.

Despite the gray wolf population’s low numbers, the service has routinely attempted to remove protection from the species, most recently in 2020 under former President Donald Trump. A federal judge later restored protections for wolves in the lower 48 states outside of the Rocky Mountains in February 2022.

Accusing the government of failing to comply with the Endangered Species Act, the center brought this suit in November 2022 to demand the nationwide recovery plan for the gray wolf.

Before a government-sponsored predator killing curbed their numbers to approximately 7,000 — a population that lives almost entirely in northeastern Minnesota — the gray wolf had a population of about 2 million and territory that spanned much of the United States.

The species now exists only at about 1% of its historical numbers, a percentage the center has blamed on the absence of a sufficient recovery plan.

Wildlife advocates 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 in February 2021, at least 218 gray wolves were killed in a 48-hour span, about 100 more than the legal limit.

The D.C. federal court retains jurisdiction over the matter to ensure compliance with the terms of the settlement.