Erik Molvar

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is tasked with administering the Endangered Species Act, the nation’s most powerful environmental law, and to do it solely based on the best available science.

The reason that Congress enshrined the science-only requirement for endangered species decisions in federal law is because the usual drivers of agency decisions – political expediency, economic profitability, even popularity – had been pushing native wildlife and plants to the brink of extinction for more than a century. The broken system of politics-as-usual needed serious reform.

Still, the Service has repeatedly refused to do its job, and the courts have had to step in time and time again on species ranging from Bi-state sage grouse to Yellowstone bison, from grizzlies to fluvial Arctic grayling, to remind the agency of its best available science mandate. Today, the agency is playing politics by denying wolves the Endangered Species Act protections they so obviously need in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, and we’re suing them for failing to follow the law. Again.

The Fish and Wildlife Service claims, based on a bogus model, that wolves in the West don’t need ESA protections because they have no chance of extinction over the next hundred years. Their model starts with badly biased wolf population estimates from Idaho and Wyoming.

Independent experts have pointed to major flaws in both the Idahoand Montana population estimators, which badly overestimate the number of wolves in each state as a result. Then, the agency applied a quasi-extinction threshold – the number of wolves that represent a decline to inevitable extinction – to the laughably low total of only five wolves across 11 western states. Modeling is a garbage-in, garbage-out exercise, and USFWS larded up their model with so much garbage that its outputs have no scientific validity.

The nation’s leading wolf geneticist has found that today’s wolf population in the northern Rockies is too small to maintain genetic variability, putting its existence in peril.

Then there is the small matter of “adequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms” required to keep species out of the extinction vortex. The three states which are currently exempted from Endangered Species protections – Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho – prioritize reducing or eliminating wolves over responsible wildlife conservation.

Last week, Wyoming provided Exhibit A.

The world was shocked and disgusted when Cody Roberts of Daniel, Wyoming ran over a wolf with a snowmobile, duct-taped its mouth shut, dragged it into a bar to show it off, and then took it out back and killed it. However, in Wyoming, killing wolves is completely unregulated across 85% of the state in which wolves are designated a “predatory animal” subject to unlimited killing, on any day of the year, without a bag limit or even a hunting license.

This is the opposite of wildlife management (it’s no management at all), and as a result wolves have been extirpated from vast tracts of suitable habitat. This act was not deemed animal cruelty, because in Wyoming animal cruelty explicitly exempts predatory animals. Running over a wolf or coyote with a snowmobile also isn’t a crime in Wyoming. A law to make it illegal, proposed by Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson), was killed in the legislature before it could even get out of committee.

In the wake of this outrageous event, Governor Gordon issued a statement that he “would be disappointed if anyone were to paint Wyoming with a broad brush and suggest that Wyoming citizens condone the reckless, thoughtless and heinous actions of one individual.” But he forgot to acknowledge that the Wyoming state government explicitly condones this kind of behavior, and indeed has protected such heinous actions by enshrining them in state law.

There’s more. Wyoming wolf hunters have been positioning themselves along the Colorado border, blaring distress calls from prey species to lure federally-protected wolves from the safety of Colorado into the Wyoming free-fire zone so they could be killed. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has never prosecuted these killers.

In 2007 the USFWS characterized the unlimited killing of wolves in the ‘predatory animal zone’ as an inadequate regulatory mechanism that precluded de-listing, but later caved in to political pressure and removed federal protections, even though state-sanctioned wolf killing outside the state’s trophy-hunting zone remained completely unregulated.

The atrocities against wolves are scarcely any less heinous in Montana and Idaho.

The Idaho legislature wrested control of wolf management from the state’s wildlife agency in 2021, so it could dictate yearlong, unlimited wolf trapping on private lands, allow yearlong wolf hunting in more than half the state’s hunting areas, prescribe unlimited wolf “harvest” and tag purchases.

It has authorized anti-wolf hate groups to offer bounties to incentivize the killing of wolves, and allocated $300,000 of taxpayer funds to pursue its own wolf-killing initiatives. Hunting methods became more permissive too, allowing night hunting with night-vision goggles, aerial shooting from airplanes or helicopters, hunting wolves over bait, and the use of dogs to chase and corner wolves. No one could argue Idaho is trying to protect wolves with rules like these.

The State of Montana followed suit, expanding its wolf-killing options in 2022. It increased the number of wolves each Montanan could kill each year to 20 animals, authorized wolf-baiting statewide, authorized night hunting on private land, and opened up the state to wolf snaring. Montana also authorized the payment of wolf bounties.

Despite the radical increase in hunting seasons and bag limits, along with expanded hunting and trapping methods, annual wolf kills in Montana and Idaho remained steady. When hunter effort increases but hunter kills do not, it is a classic sign of declining populations.

Clearly and obviously, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho require the adult supervision of ESA protections for wolves. Their state regulatory frameworks are purposefully designed for wolf eradication. With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service unwilling to apply federal protections evenly across the West, re-establishing protections in the states with the worst wolf management problems, the question of ESA compliance now moves to federal court.

For the sake of western wolves, it's time to inject some science into the endangered species process.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist with published scientific findings on predator-ungulate interactions, and is Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds across the American West.