Update: National Lawsuit and Other Actions to Protect Wolves

Wolves have a long and complicated legal history. Here’s a look at where things stand today in the courts and with other actions to protect wolves.

National Delisting and Lawsuit

Gray wolves in the lower 48 states were protected under the Endangered Species Act for more than 40 years.

In November 2020 the Trump administration published a rule in the Federal Register delisting the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act nearly nationwide. The rule went into effect Jan. 4, 2021.

On Jan. 14, 2021, Earthjustice sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the delisting rule. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, Oregon Wild and Humane Society of the United States.

That day, another suit was filed over the same delisting rule by Western Environmental Law Center, representing an additional eight groups (WildEarth Guardians, Western Watersheds Project, Cascadia Wildlands, Environmental Protection Information Center, Klamath Forest Alliance, Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Lands Council, and Wildlands Network).

On Jan. 25, 2021, a third suit was filed by Natural Resources Defense Council.

All three cases were filed in federal district court in Oakland, California. The court has consolidated all three cases together for briefings and hearings. Opening oral arguments are scheduled for Nov. 12, 2021.

Intervenors

In the months since these lawsuits were filed, several other parties have filed motions to intervene as co-defendants with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It means that they, like the federal wildlife agency, think wolves should lose protections and don’t think the agency can adequately represent their interest. When parties file motions to intervene, a court gets to decide whether to grant them intervener status or not. In this case:

  • Motions by two hunting organizations (Safari Club International and National Rifle Association) were granted.
  • A motion by four other hunting organizations (Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association and Michigan Bear Hunters Association) was denied.
  • A motion by a consortium of agriculture and forestry associations (American Farm Bureau Federation, American Forest Resources Council, American Sheep Industry Association, National Cattlemens Beef Association, and the Public Lands Council) was denied.
  • A motion by the state of Utah was granted.

So, current defendants in the case are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state of Utah, Safari Club International and National Rifle Association.

Friend of the Court briefs

Also, recently, several parties have filed amicus curiae briefs (Latin for “friend of the court”).

An amicus brief is one that supports the plaintiff’s lawsuits, gives reasons why the lawsuit should prevail and provides their own interests in the case as to why the lawsuit should prevail. Amicus briefs thus far filed include briefs from:

  • The Oregon and Michigan attorneys general;
  • The Ojibwe, representing more than a dozen federally recognized tribes in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan;
  • Representatives of Animal Wellness Action; Animal Wellness Foundation; Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians; Alliance for Animals; Earthday.org; Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf & Wildlife; Good Wolf; League of Humane Voters – Wisconsin; National Wolfwatcher Coalition; Plan B for Wolves; SPCA International; The Center for a Humane Economy; The 06 Legacy; Wisconsin Wolf Front United; and Wolf Patrol.

Status of the National Lawsuit

This case is still pending in court, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service filed its opening brief on Aug. 20, 2021.

Some were surprised that the wildlife agency, under the Biden administration, filed its legal brief supporting the case to delist wolves. The agency has been steadfast in its push to end wolf protections for more than decade, including during Republican and Democratic administrations.

Opening arguments will be held Nov. 12, 2021.

Other Actions Pending for Wolves

Beyond the lawsuit over delisting, there are separate actions pending to protect wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains.

It’s important to remember that the delisting rule that went into effect in January 2021 did not include wolves in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and portions of Oregon, Washington and Utah. Wolves in most of those places lost protection by an act of Congress in 2011, including a provision that the decision could not be appealed in court. Wyoming’s wolves lost protections the following year.

Several actions have been taken to protect wolves in the northern Rockies:

  • The Center for Biological Diversity, HSUS, HSUS Legislative Fund and Sierra Club in May 2021 filed an administrative petition with the Fish and Wildlife Service to relist wolves in the northern Rockies.
  • After Idaho passed laws to wipe out 90% of its wolves, the Center for Biological Diversity in May 2021 sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urging the agency to withhold Pittman-Robertson Act funds from Idaho. These are funds generated by excise tax on the sales of guns and ammunition which then get distributed to the states for use in the conservation of wildlife and land.
  • The Center for Biological Diversity in May 2021 urged Montana wildlife officials not to enact barbaric new laws to kill about 80% of the state’s wolves and highlighted the risk of losing Pittman-Robertson funds as a result.
  • In June 2021, Earthjustice, on behalf of Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Clearwater, HSUS, International Wildlife Coexistence Network, Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project, Wilderness Watch, and Wolves of the Rockies filed a “notice of intent to sue” the state of Montana if wolf trapping seasons are expanded and new methods of trapping, such as strangulation snares, are allowed in grizzly bear and lynx habitat within the state. The trapping raises the risks of incidental harming or killing of grizzly bears and lynx, both of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
  • In June 2021, Earthjustice, on behalf of Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, HSUS/HSUS Legislative Fund, Friends of the Clearwater, International Wildlife Coexistence Network, Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project, Montana Wildlife Federation, Wolves of the Rockies and Wilderness Watch, filed an administrative petition with the U.S. Forest Service urging the agency to issue new regulations to prohibit trapping of wolves in wilderness areas of Montana and Idaho.
  • In July 2021, Earthjustice, on behalf of Center for Biological Diversity, Footloose Montana, Friends of the Clearwater, International Wildlife Coexistence Network, Nimiipuu Protecting the Environment, Sierra Club, Trapfree Montana Public Lands, Western Watersheds Project, Wilderness Watch, and Wolves of the Rockies filed a “notice of Intent to sue” the state of Idaho if expansive hunting, trapping and snaring of wolves are allowed in grizzly bear and lynx habitat within the state. The trapping raises the risks of incidental harming or killing of grizzly bears and lynx, both of which are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
  • An administrative petition was filed July 29, 2021, by Western Watersheds Project on behalf of itself and 70 additional organizations, urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect all wolves in the western United States as a Distinct Population Segment under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Litigation also has been filed in state courts to protect wolves in Wisconsin and in Michigan:

  • On April 2, 2021, The ’06 Legacy filed a lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for stacking its public wolf advisory group with members who favor wolf hunting to ensure a pro-hunting agenda.
  • On Aug. 17, 2021, after the Humane Society of the United States and Center for Biological Diversity submitted a letter calling for his removal, Wisconsin’s attorney general sued Department of Natural Resources Board Chair Frederick Prehn to prevent him from continuing to unlawfully serve on the board and to continue to cast votes unlawfully regarding wolf hunting matters. In September a state court dismissed the lawsuit but the state Department of Natural Resources plans to file an appeal.
  • On Aug. 31, 2021, a lawsuit was filed by The Great Lakes Wildlife Alliance, Project Coyote, Animal Wellness Action, The Center for Humane Economy, and Patrick Clark against the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Wisconsin Natural Resources Board, the director of the DNR, and one of the DNR board members. This suit challenges the constitutionality of Wisconsin’s wolf hunt law, decisions made by the DNR board with regard to the wolf hunts and the expired term of a deciding board member. The plaintiffs have since filed a motion for preliminary injunction to halt any state-instituted wolf hunts until their case can be heard on the merits.  The hearing on the motion for preliminary injunction is scheduled for Oct. 21, 2021.
  • On Sept. 21, 2021, a lawsuit was filed by the Red Cliff Band, Bad River Band, and Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, the Lac Du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians of the Lac Du Flambeau Reservation of Wisconsin, the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, and Sokaogon Chippewa Community. This suit challenges and seeks to halt the state hunting of wolves as a violation of longstanding Tribal Treaty rights. On Oct. 1, 2021, the plaintiffs in this lawsuit filed a motion for a preliminary injunction seeking to halt any wolf hunt until a court can rule on the merits of the lawsuit.

Additional tribal actions include:

  • Dozens of Native American tribes asked the Biden administration on Sept. 14, 2021 to immediately enact emergency protections for wolves, saying states have become too aggressive in hunting the animal. The request, which was made in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, was filed by the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, the Association on American Indian Affairs, the Navajo Nation, the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council, the Native Justice Coalition, the Great Plains Tribal Chairman’s Association and the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona.
  • The Assembly of First Nations, composed of 634 chiefs representing all First Nations across Canada, petitioned Secretary Haaland to take emergency action and provide federal protection for wolves in the lower 48 states.
  • A film called “Family,” which was produced by Rain Bear Stands Last of the Global Indigenous Council, was released July 7, 2021. It highlights the wolf’s plight and the urgent need to act to protect wolves. The film also reminds viewers of “The Wolf: A Treaty of Cultural and Environmental Survival.” The Wolf Treaty, issued in 2019, was signed by more than 120 tribes and Indigenous spiritual leaders, authors, orators, and water protectors, and strongly emphasizes Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and an adherence to the Indigenous Rights of Nature (IRON).