A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled against the Interior Department’s decision to strip protections from a regional population of endangered gray wolves and allow states to openly hunt them.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, arguably the nation’s most important appellate court after the Supreme Court, upheld a lower court’s decision that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of Interior, has the authority to group wolves in the western Great Lakes region into a segment as it did in 2011, but does not have the power to simply remove them from the endangered species list without considering the move’s impact on the entire species of gray wolves in their range.

“When a species is already listed, the service cannot review a single segment with blinders on, ignoring the continuing status of the species’ remnant,” the court ruled. The Endangered Species Act “requires a comprehensive review of the entire listed species and its continuing status. Having started the process, the service cannot call it quits upon finding a single distinct population segment.”

In affirming the lower court ruling, the judges added to a succession of losses by Interior in an ongoing attempt to de-list gray wolves mostly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as a few in other states such as Ohio, North Dakota and Indiana, since 2003.

At that time, Fish and Wildlife divided the nation’s population of gray wolves into three segments — western, eastern and southwestern. When district courts in Oregon and Vermont struck down the divisions after legal challenges from conservationists, Fish and Wildlife tried another maneuver. It ruled that a western Great Lakes population of wolves no longer deserved protections and struck them off the endangered list.

“That rule soon met the same fate as its … predecessors,” the appeals court judges wrote in Tuesday’s ruling. Another district court ruled that Fish and Wildlife failed to do due diligence “to acknowledge and address crucial … ambiguities” of arbitrarily designating gray wolf segments in an effort to remove their protection.

“The Endangered Species Act … requires the service, when reviewing and redetermining the status of a species, to look at the whole picture of the listed species, not just a segment of it.”

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