A legal challenge is being launched against the Trump administration’s October decision to remove the gray wolf from Endangered Species Act protection, meaning the Colorado Parks and Wildlife will start considering reintroduction of the animal in the state amid uncertainty over its federal status.
That status could both affect what federal funding might be available to help with voter-approved reintroduction in Colorado and determine whether federal permitting will be required for the reintroduction program.
Voters narrowly approved a measure on the November ballot requiring CPW to begin introducing wolves to the state by the end of 2023. That approval came less than a week after Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said that the animal’s numbers have recovered and it will no longer be listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act in parts of the country where those protections currently exist, including Colorado.
On Nov. 9, several conservation groups filed a notice of intent to file a suit challenging the delisting decision in 60 days.
Colorado wolf reintroduction advocate Rob Edward, president of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund, thinks federal protections for the wolf shouldn’t be rolled back and the legal challenge of the delisting decision will prevail. But he said if the animals remain delisted for a significant period of time while the lawsuit progresses through the court system, Colorado might be able to get wolves on the ground without having to go through the federal permitting process required in the case of federally protected species.
“So it’s an ironic benefit at the state level while we disagree with delisting wolves in the first place,” Edward said.
At the same time, he said he’s talked to past Fish and Wildlife Service directors who have estimated that if the gray wolf remained federally protected, that agency would likely pay 75 percent of the cost of its reintroduction in Colorado.
“So that’s a downside of it not being listed,” he said.
He said some federal funding might still be available if the delisting decision stands, but there’s a less straightforward argument for providing such funding to Colorado’s reintroduction effort than if the wolf is federally protected.
The state reintroduction measure requires that there be compensation for wolf predation of livestock. The Fish and Wildlife Service runs a program giving states and tribes grants to fund efforts to reduce wolf-livestock conflict and compensate for confirmed kills by wolves. With its delisting decision, it has proposed other programs it says are better suited to deliver such funding, such as a Department of Agriculture livestock indemnity program.
CPW spokesman Travis Duncan said it isn’t likely federal funding would be available if the gray wolf is delisted.
“However, we do not believe it is reasonable to assume that there will be significant federal funding available for Colorado’s restoration efforts regardless of the listing status. As we work through the planning process, funding for this effort will be an area that we will look at in more detail,” he said.
He said CPW doesn’t have a position on whether the gray wolf should remain federally listed for protection in Colorado.
“Our focus is on implementing the requirements of the ballot initiative,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting decision rule is scheduled to take effect Jan. 4, 60 days after it was published in the Federal Register.
The agency says more than 6,000 gray wolves current live in the Lower 48 states. About 4,400 live in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota and about 1,700 are in the northern Rockies. The species already is delisted in the Northern Rockies.
Gray wolves currently are listed as a threatened species in Minnesota and as endangered elsewhere in the Lower 48 where they continue to be federally protected.
The gray wolf also is listed and protected separately by the state of Colorado as an endangered species, a status that the federal delisting won’t change.
While the administration of incoming president Joe Biden theoretically could try to reverse the federal delisting decision, Edward said previous Democratic administrations under presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama pursued delisting.
Erik Molvar with the Western Watersheds Project, one of the groups involved in the planned suit over delisting, said he’s heard no mention of a reversal of delisting under a Biden administration, and he’s presuming it’s “probably up to conservation groups who are litigating to get the wolf back on the list” of federally protected species.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says that under the Endangered Species Act it must propose delisting a species if it determines the species is no longer threatened or endangered throughout all or a significant part of its range.
Bernhardt said in his October announcement, “After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery. (The) announcement simply reflects the determination that this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law.”
In their notice of intent to sue, conservation groups say the Fish and Wildlife Service can’t use the “purported success” of gray wolf restoration in the Great Lakes region to argue it has no responsibility to restore it to the Pacific Northwest, central and southern Rockies, and Southwest.
“This is especially true in parts of the country such as Washington, Oregon, California, and Colorado where gray wolves are just beginning to recolonize their historical range and habitat, thanks in part to the protections of the Endangered Species Act,” the notice says.
Early this year, Parks and Wildlife confirmed the presence of a wolf pack in far northwest Colorado. CPW in September said that some wolves were shot just over the border in Wyoming, where wolves are legal game, and wolf advocates say those wolves may have been part of the northwest Colorado pack.
Said Molvar, “I think we feel pretty good about our chances in court given how tenuous and how small the wolf populations are in most of the western states where they were listed (as federally protected) prior to the Trump decision,” he said.