Skip to main content

What Lies Ahead on the Road to Wolf Recovery

Earthjustice offers an overview of the fights ahead for the protection of wolves.

The rare supermoon lunar eclipse incited wolf howls from a crowd of San Francisco sky-gazers on Sunday night.

The rare supermoon lunar eclipse incited wolf howls from a crowd of San Francisco sky-gazers on Sunday night.

NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

The other night I stood with a few friends and about 100 other people at an overlook in San Francisco’s Presidio to watch the rare blood moon eclipse. Right as the orange moon emerged above the cloud line over the Bay, some people across the way raised their heads and let out a howl. Soon the whole mass of strangers, toddler-age to seniors, joined together in a chorus of wolf cries as the moon passed through the Earth’s shadow.

It felt like a fitting final note to a summer that at Earthjustice has been all about celebrating the wolf. We saw artists around the world submit their artwork in honor of the wolf through our #JoinThePack campaign with the Creative Action Network (still open for submissions!). We produced a short film, “The Fable of the Wolf,” to show what happens to the world when people hunt wolves to extinction and the consequential deterioration of a wilderness without a keystone predator.  We even threw a Wolf Party with a high-energy, wolf-themed party playlist and more than 150 people howling for the protection of the species.

We’re wrapping our Weekly Howl blog series today with a look at the fights that lie ahead for the wolves and some information about how you can take action to ensure a future for the wolves.

Gray wolves in the Northern Rockies:

Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies office in Bozeman, Montana, continues to advocate on behalf of wolf populations that were restored to the region through natural recolonization and a federal reintroduction program in the 1990s. At present, we are defending our legal victory in a challenge to the removal of federal protections for wolves in Wyoming. Our victory in that case in September 2014 ended that state’s hostile “kill-on-sight” approach to wolf management across 85 percent of Wyoming. Both the federal government and Wyoming are appealing that victory. The government has filed its brief and ours is due in November.

Big Creek in the Frank Church River-of-No-Return Wilderness, Idaho.
Photo by Charles "Chuck" Peterson/CC BY 2.0
Big Creek in the Frank Church River-of-No-Return Wilderness, Idaho.

In Idaho, we received good news in August when the state announced it will not resume a program to kill 60 percent of the wolf population occupying a large portion of central Idaho’s Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness this winter. Idaho has sought to kill wolves in the wilderness to artificially inflate elk populations for the benefit of a few commercial outfitters and recreational hunters, but it suspended its wolf-killing program after Earthjustice sued to protect the wilderness as a place “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,” as federal law requires.  We are continuing to monitor Idaho’s activities closely to ensure that the wolves remain protected from such activities.

Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest:

The howl of the Mexican gray wolf, a smaller subspecies of the gray wolf known as “el Lobo,” was once a defining symbol of the wild throughout the Southwest, including Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and northern Mexico.  Yet with the arrival of the livestock industry, ranchers and government agents nearly silenced this western icon with rifles, traps and poisons. Ultimately, with the wolves nearly extirpated, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Mexican gray wolf as endangered in 1976, and eventually reintroduced a small population into the wild.

A Mexican gray wolf
A Mexican gray wolf photographed at Wolf Haven International in Tenino, Washington.

The wolves’ tenuous toehold on the climb to survival, however, was met with heated political opposition from ranchers in Arizona and New Mexico who cowed government regulators into abandoning efforts to give the species the full protection that the Endangered Species Act requires. In particular, the agency has still not prepared a recovery plan needed to specify needed conservation measures, or issued a management rule that ensures the species’ recovery.

Earthjustice attorneys based out of the Denver and Bozeman offices have filed two lawsuits in the past year to remedy both problems and ensure that the Mexican gray wolf returns to the Southwest.

Pacific Northwest Wolves:

Earthjustice is a member of the Pacific Wolf Coalition, a group of groups banded together to facilitate recovery of the species in the Pacific Northwest. Along the West Coast, the Endangered Species Act protects gray wolves for now, barring any moves by Congress to remove all protections for this species.

Mt. Rainier in the Cascade Mountains.
Photo by louelke/CC BY 2.0
Mt. Rainier in the Cascade Mountains.

The summer of 2015 brought wolves to new places. Washington now has 16 confirmed wolf packs in the eastern and Northern Cascade parts of the state, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife confirmed an adult wolf (sadly found dead by the highway) west of the Cascade Mountains. OR-7, the first wolf officially seen west of the Cascades since 1937, sired a second group of pups for the Rogue Pack in Oregon.  In northern California, cameras caught two adult wolves and five pups—called the Shasta Pack—in Siskiyou County, marking the first wolf pack seen in California in 100 years.  A draft California wolf management plan is expected to be released at the end of 2015.

Alexander Archipelago wolves in Alaska:

The old-growth habitat in the Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest remaining intact temperate rain forest, is home to the Alexander Archipelago wolf.  Earlier this year, the Forest Service documented a 60 percent decline in that wolf population in a single year.  Even worse, that population estimate was made prior to the 2014/2015 hunting and trapping seasons, so the population decline is likely even greater. Compounding the problem, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has refused requests to close the upcoming hunting and trapping season. 

Tongass National Forest
Photo by Joseph/CC BY 2.0
Tongass National Forest

Earthjustice is challenging the forest plan that governs the Tongass and the Forest Service’s failure to fulfill its legal obligation to manage old-growth habitat in a manner that ensures the viability of this rare wolf. Maintaining sufficient old-growth habitat is the single most important factor for the future of the wolf on the Tongass, but the forest plan does not require the agency to retain a minimum amount of old-growth to provide for a viable wolf population.

The organization is also challenging the Big Thorne Timber project, the largest old-growth sale in the country in the more than 15 years.  The timber sale project authorizes clear-cutting six thousand acres of prime wolf habitat.

Both cases are pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Washington, D.C.:

Capitol Hill
Photo by Elliott P./CC BY 2.0
Capitol Hill

Some of the toughest fights for wolves lie in the halls of Congress. Right now Earthjustice is working hard to ensure that a damaging wolf delisting policy “rider” is not included in the final spending legislation for the upcoming year. This rider, which would remove existing federal protections for wolves in Wyoming and the Midwest and block further judicial review of these wolf delistings, was included in both the House and Senate Interior Department spending bills for FY 2016.  As part of these efforts, we are working with partner organizations and congressional champions to call on President Obama to flatly reject the inclusion of the wolf delisting rider and all other anti-Endangered Species Act riders in final spending legislation for the upcoming fiscal year.

In addition to the Wyoming/Midwest wolf delisting rider that is in play, there have also been four damaging standalone bills introduced in the House that would block existing federal wolf protections. One of them, targeting Mexican gray wolfs, would all but guarantee the extinction of this fragile wolf population, which numbers barely more than 100 in the wild.

How can you help?

Congress and President Obama need to hear from the public that it stands with wolves. Lend your voice to the chorus of howls by telling Congress not to meddle with the Endangered Species Act, which protects wolves and countless other imperiled wildlife. And, watch and share our short film about the historic plight of the wolves.

Learn more at Earthjustice.org/howl

About this series

2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the reintroduction of gray wolves to the northern Rockies, and since that time wolves have been under nearly constant threat of losing their protections. The Weekly Howl provides insights and education about the gray wolf and updates on the status of its protections while celebrating the iconic species as a vital part of a functioning, healthy ecosystem. Posts will appear every Wednesday starting June 17 and running through the summer.

Don’t miss last week’s post: Howling for Wolf Art.

Overruling Trump.