Federal protections for gray wolves in the western U.S. are up for debate again, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) recently announcing they will review whether the animals should be listed as "endangered" or "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
In a press release on Sept. 15, USFWS found that two petitions had presented "substantial, credible information" which warrant another review over federal protections for gray wolves.
The petitioners claimed there is an increased number of "human-caused" wolf deaths due to regulatory changes in Idaho and Montana aimed at reducing the number of wolves in those states. The press release also said regulations in Idaho and Montana "may be inadequate to address this threat." Petitioners also point to other dangers gray wolves face, such as disease and loss of genetic diversity.
Both petitions, according to the USFWS, propose changes in western states, like Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Nevada and northern Arizona.
A written statement from USFWS said it "now moves forward to conduct an analysis and species assessment, called a 12-month finding, of the best scientific information available to make a listing determination."
In 12 months the USFWS will assess the need for new protections for gray wolves.
Additionally, tribes and other Native American groups have sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Halaand urging that gray wolves be listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. They urged action on an May 26 emergency petition, which calls for an immediate 240-day protection on gray wolves from when the petition was filed.
The petition is a result of "states enacting anti-wolf policies that present a real potential of decimating wolf populations," the letter states.
The letter also cites that wolves are "functionally 80 percent of its historic range." The letter is concerned about the wolf population, as wolves play a sacred role in many Native cultures and traditions.
State and federal changes in protections for gray wolves have changed over the years. The former Trump administration stripped federal regulations for gray wolves, except for Mexican gray wolves, for most of the lower 48 states; that change went into effect in January. Gray wolves had been classified as endangered by the USFWS since 1978.
Mexican gray wolf
"There's a lot of deep-seated, maybe old-fashioned fear and hatred of wolves generally," said Logan Glasenapp, attorney for New Mexico Wild. "I think any work that we do to protect any subspecies of wolf is beneficial to the overall of the general species of wolf."
Glasenapp believes there would be an indirect benefit for the Mexican gray wolf in New Mexico if that mindset would only change.
The Mexican gray wolf can be found in New Mexico and Arizona today, but their numbers have greatly diminished over the last 100 years. Historically, they roamed also in Texas and Mexico. They are a different subspecies of gray wolves from the Rocky Mountains area. Mexican gray wolves are distinct for having a smaller body size.
Mexican gray wolves endured hunting campaigns as many ranchers saw them as a threat to their livestock. The Mexican gray wolf was listed as an endangered species under the ESA in 1973, but breeding campaigns have helped to reintroduce the wolf back into the region. While the population of gray wolves has increased by an estimated 14 percent since 2020, the USFWS said there are just around 186 Mexican gray wolves in the American Southwest currently.
"The argument is supposed to be grounded in science, but most of the arguments are grounded in emotion," said David Parsons, biologist and advisor to Lobos of the Southwest, a coalition that advocates for recovery of the Mexican wolf in the region.
Parsons is a former USFWS employee, he believes hostility toward wolves led to the history of campaigns to kill them off in the 19th and 20th centuries. He said that attitudes don't seem to have changed much since.
"We are going to see a new management plan for Mexican gray wolves under Section 10-J of the Endangered Species Act," said Parsons.
In 2022, USFWS will potentially have new protections for Mexican gray wolves. A lawsuit by conservation groups led to the review of current measures to protect them. The measures are part of the 2017 Mexican Wolf Recovery Plan, which limits the population to 325 wolves, along with the removal of wolves that cross the north side of I-40.
Glasenapp said his group is continuing to push for better protections for these animals and make sure "the wolf is not made a scapegoat.