BILLINGS, Mont (AP) — A judge on Thursday reinstated federal protections for gray wolves in much of the United States after they were removed in the final days of the Trump administration.
U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in Oakland, Calif., said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to show that wolf populations could be sustained in the Midwest and parts of the West without protection by under the Endangered Species Act.
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Wildlife advocates sued the agency last year, saying state-sponsored hunting threatened to reverse gray wolf recovery in recent decades. The decision does not directly impact wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and parts of several adjacent states that remain under state jurisdiction after protections are lifted. in the region by Congress over the past decade.
Federal officials had defended the Trump rule that removed protections, arguing that wolves are resilient enough to bounce back even though their numbers have dropped sharply due to heavy hunting.
The future of a species whose recovery from near extinction has been heralded as a historic conservation success hangs in the balance. The recovery has prompted a bitter backlash from hunters and farmers angry at attacks of wolves against herds of big game and cattle. They argue that the protections are no longer justified.
Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the agency was reviewing Thursday’s decision and had no further comment.
Wildlife groups said the judge’s order would immediately halt hunting in the Great Lakes region, where Wisconsin officials had come under fire after a wolf hunt last year exceeded state quotas, killing 218 wolves in four days.
“Wolves in the Great Lakes region are getting a stay of execution,” said John Horning of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians.
None of the Great Lakes states with established wolf populations — Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin — had planned additional wolf hunts before the judge’s ruling. Natural resources officials with the three declined to comment immediately Thursday, saying they were reviewing the decision.
In October, a Wisconsin state judge blocked another hunt two weeks before it began, responding to lawsuits claiming it had been illegally scheduled.
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Since September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been separately considering whether protections should be restored for predators in the northern Rockies, after Republican lawmakers in the states of Montana and Idaho passed laws last year aimed at reduce the number of wolves by killing them more easily. . These protections were not called into question in the trial decided on Thursday.
Under relaxed rules, hunters and trappers, mostly in Montana, have killed a record 23 wolves that roamed outside Yellowstone National Park this winter, sparking public outrage due to the popularity of the park’s wolf packs among tourists from around the world.
In response to the murders, Interior Sec. Deb Haaland published an op-ed this week saying federal authorities could grant emergency protection to wolves if wolf welfare is at risk.
“Recent laws passed in some western states are undermining state wildlife managers by promoting precipitous reductions in wolf populations, such as removing bag limits, baiting, trapping, night hunting, and stalking. dogs — the same kind of practices that have nearly wiped out wolves for the past century,” Haaland wrote.
Wolves once roamed most of the United States, but were wiped out in most places by the 1930s through government-sponsored poisoning and trapping campaigns.
A remnant population in the western Great Lakes region has since expanded to some 4,400 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. And more than 2,000 wolves occupy six states north of the Rockies and the Pacific Northwest.
Yet wolves remain absent in most of their historic range. Wildlife advocates argue that continued protections are needed so they can continue to thrive in California, Colorado, Oregon and other states.
Democratic and Republican administrations, dating back to former President George W. Bush, have sought to remove or reduce federal wolf protections first enacted in 1974.
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