Gray wolves lose endangered species protections, but Mexican wolves keep status

The Arizona Republic (Original) Posted October 29, 2020 by Anton Delgado

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will remove gray wolves from protection under the Endangered Species Act, a decision that has angered conservationists who say the species remains vulnerable and who have vowed to take legal action.

U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Thursday declared that after 45 years under federal protection the gray wolves have “exceeded all conservation goals for recovery.” In a statement, he said the decision “reflects the Trump Administration’s continued commitment to species conservation.”

The decision, first proposed by the administration in June 2018 and formally announced in March 2019, will allow individual states to decide how to handle the predators in the future.

Thursday’s decision to lift protections only applies to gray wolves and will not affect the Mexican gray wolf, a subspecies found in Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico, which will retain its endangered status.

Wildlife advocacy groups promised to fight the decision in court.

“Stripping protections for gray wolves is premature and reckless. Gray wolves occupy only a fraction of their former range and need continued federal protection to fully recover,” said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of the Defenders of Wildlife, in a statement. “We will be taking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court to defend this iconic species.”

Both feared and revered by people, gray wolves no longer prowl their historic ranges and are absent from Arizona’s landscape. One of the rarest subspecies, the Mexican gray wolf, has returned from the edge of extinction through cross-breeding and human reintroductions, but its numbers are still small, with about 163 known to live in the wild.

Concern among local environmental organizations is growing, however, that the rollback of protections will inherently affect the recovering subspecies.

“The survival of the Mexican gray wolf was in doubt before this announcement and these rollbacks are just putting the subspecies even more at risk,” said Michael Robinson, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based environmental organization.

“When you're looking at a wild animal, it is inherently difficult to make an accurate ID. Since they are a subspecies, they look pretty darn similar," he said. "Removing these protections from gray wolves exposes Mexican wolves to perilous mix-ups, putting them on a path that may once again bring them close to extinction."

A controversial subspecies in Arizona

The Mexican gray wolf has been on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service list of endangered species since 1976. Nationwide trapping, hunting and poisoning campaigns had pushed the gray wolf and many of its subspecies close to extinction.

But for the last two decades, the Arizona Game and Fish Department alongside other state agencies have been reintroducing Mexican wolves back into the Southwest. The first reintroduction took place with 11 wolves in eastern Arizona in 1998.

Reintroductions have been aided by organizations like the Defenders of Wildlife, which features a howling wolf on its logo, that have been working to reduce the conflict between wolves and ranchers.

“These wolves are key ecological actors that provide a myriad of benefits to our ecosystem,” said Craig Miller, the senior southwest representative for the Defenders of Wildlife. “But wolves are also catalytic in the sense that they are super controversial but are forcing us to come together and figure out ways to resolve our differences.”

The Mexican wolf population in Arizona and New Mexico has now grown to 163, according to the game and fish department’s most recent survey taken last year.

Despite the growth, Jim deVos, the assistant director for wildlife management for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, said Mexican wolves are barely at the halfway point of being considered for delisting as an endangered species.

“We don’t take many species off the endangered species list because it’s darn hard to get there,” deVos said. “They are endangered for a reason.”

For a discussion on delisting to even take place, deVos said two key components must be met. First, the population of Mexican wolves in Arizona and New Mexico must reach an average of 325 over the course of eight years. The latter three of those years must show no sign of decline. Second, the subspecies population in Mexico must also average 200 over the same timespan.

While the 2019 survey recorded the Mexican wolf population in Arizona and New Mexico at 163, a 24% increase from 2018, deVos said the species is still a ways from even being considered for delisting.

“To get them off the endangered species list is going to be hard,” deVos said. “We’re making progress but it’s going to be a slow process.”

According to the release from the U.S. Department of Interior, since 2017, 13 species — and now the gray wolf — have been removed from the Endangered Species list. Another seven species have been downlisted from endangered to threatened.

“President Trump’s Administration has focused on proactive measures… to ensure listed species flourish to the point of recovery,” Aurelia Skipwith, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement. “Today is a win for the gray wolf and the American people.”

If the courts uphold the federal government’s decision, gray wolves will be subject to individual states’ regulations on hunting and trapping, which dramatically vary.

In California and Washington, the gray wolves will retain protections under the states’ endangered species laws. In Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, the decision could lead to the resumption of wolf hunts. And in Oregon, The Statesman Journal reports the biggest change is that the gray wolves in the western two-thirds of the state will lose federal protection.

The gray wolves are expected to lose protection 60 days after the decision is published in the Federal Register in early November.

Anton L. Delgado is an environmental reporter for The Arizona Republic/AZCentral. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @antonldelgado and tell him about stories at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..