Energy & Environment

Activists pushing Interior for emergency protections for gray wolves

Indigenous activists are pushing Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to safeguard gray wolves after the expiration of federal protections allowed hunters to kill hundreds of the animals.

The Trump administration removed the gray wolf from the list of endangered species last year, effectively handing off enforcement to the states. In the first major hunt following the move in February, Wisconsin hunters killed more than 200 wolves, roughly one-fifth of the state’s population.

Indigenous advocates were enraged and confused when Haaland, the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency, defended the Trump-era rule in federal court instead of enacting emergency protections for an animal that plays a central role in many Indigenous cultures.

In September, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) announced it would review wolves’ endangered species status, but the study will likely take a year while federal protections remain undone.  

“No one should be judged on one day or one decision in their life … but this decision to adopt the Trump position was an extremely disappointing day,” said Tom Rodgers, president of the Global Indigenous Council. 

On Friday, tribal leaders made their case in a meeting with Assistant Interior Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan. They’re urging the agency to grant emergency protections to wolves before permanently relisting them, while also taking away federal gaming funds from states that allow for aggressive hunting of wolves.

GOP lawmakers in Montana and Idaho, states that have been exempt from federal wolf protections for a decade, passed bills last year to expand the ability of hunters and ranchers to kill wolves. The Idaho law allows hunters to kill up to 90 percent of the state’s wolves, sparking concern from local reservations that those populations could be wiped out.

Hundreds of tribes across the U.S. and Canada have joined together in the effort to shield wolves, signing a treaty last year stating that wolves are essential to local ecosystems as well as Native American culture and tourism.

Native American activists are also stressing the need for better communication with agency officials, pointing to President Biden’s promise that under his administration, the Interior Department would listen to the Native American communities it governs.  

“The No. 1 thing we requested was consultation as directed by the president,” Rodgers said. “Speak to us and elicit our input. Permission is not the same as forgiveness.”

Their campaign is bolstered by Democratic lawmakers. On Thursday, 21 Democratic senators wrote a letter to Haaland urging her to issue temporary federal protections for gray wolves in the U.S. West to prevent “senseless killings.” 

“If continued unabated for this hunting season, these extreme wolf eradication policies will result in the death of hundreds of gray wolves and will further harm federally protected ecosystems like Yellowstone,” read the letter, which was led by Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.). 

An FWS spokesperson said in a statement that “emergency listing remains on the table, if the Service sees circumstances develop that would lead us to apply that authority.” They added the move is left up to the discretion of the agency, which would first need to see sufficient evidence.

Haaland has the authority to unilaterally grant the species emergency listing, but such a move would be unprecedented.

Indigenous advocates are going up against groups representing farmers, ranchers and hunters, which successfully argued to the Trump administration that the nation’s gray wolf population had recovered to sustainable levels. Roughly 6,000 wolves remain in the U.S., according to a FWS estimate. 

“It is unacceptable for the Service to continue to be held hostage by groups who want nothing more than to turn the Endangered Species Act into a permanent management tool,” Kaitlynn Glover, executive director of natural resources at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said in a statement following the agency’s announcement that it would review the wolf’s endangered species status. 

“It is appropriate for the Service to continue to monitor state management of these recovered populations, but we urge them to dedicate resources to species that are truly imperiled,” she added. “We will continue to defend delisting of these clearly-recovered gray wolf populations.”

Ranchers say that they should be able to defend their livestock from frequent wolf attacks, while hunters argue that state-level management allows for wolf populations to remain stable.

Western GOP lawmakers, who strongly backed the Trump administration’s move to delist wolves, have repeatedly voiced their objections to an emergency relisting. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who passed a measure in 2011 that delisted wolves in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Washington and Oregon, also opposes the effort to enact temporary protections.

Haaland, a former Democratic congresswomen from New Mexico, has stressed that she will take input from a wide variety of stakeholders when debating high-profile rulemaking.

“I will follow the science and the law on listing decisions, and work with farmers, ranchers, states and tribes,” Haaland told lawmakers at her Senate confirmation hearing in February. 

Native American advocates are expecting more, warning that the failure to protect wolves would prompt backlash from communities that overwhelmingly backed Biden’s 2020 election.

“I would remind this administration how many voting age Native Americans there are in wolf-centric states like Wisconsin and Michigan,” Rodgers said. “Those states are critical to the president not only in 2022 but also in 2024.”

Tags Cory Booker Deb Haaland Gary Peters Joe Biden Jon Tester
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