Mason Medeiros, MJLST Staffer
Hunting is a common activity throughout the United States. Whether for sport or sustenance, it is commonly practiced in every state across the country. States, to protect animals from overhunting and extinction, have enacted laws detailing which animals can be hunted and the period of time in which the hunt can occur. Furthermore, the Endangered Species Act has made it illegal to hunt, harm, or damage the habitat of any species on the endangered species list. But what happens when the government removes a species from the endangered species list? And particularly, what happens when a state has a statutory hunting period for such species? This question was brought to light in Wisconsin, and across the nation, when the federal government the gray wolf from the endangered species list on January 4, 2021. The resulting hunts and legal disputes have created a thrilling saga about the future of the gray wolf and the protections available to them. This post will discuss (1) the Wisconsin wolf hunt litigation and aftermath, (2) what a recent Ninth Circuit opinion means for the future of the gray wolf, and (3) what this saga shows about the weakness of endangered species protections in the United States.
The Wisconsin Wolf Hunt Litigation
Soon after the gray wolf was delisted, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (W-DNR) began receiving requests for a wolf hunt. The first of such requests came from Republican lawmakers on January 15—less than 20 days after the delisting. They based their argument based on two statutes: Wisconsin Statute 29.185(1m) and Wisconsin Statute 29.185(5)(a). Statute 29.185(1m) states that “[i]f the wolf is not listed on the federal endangered list and is not listed on the state endangered list, the [W-DNR] shall allow the hunting and trapping of wolves” as regulated by this section. This provision is further developed by Statute 29.185(5)(a), which requires the W-DNR to “establish a single annual open season for both hunting and trapping wolves that begins on the first Saturday in November of each year and ends on the last day of February of the following year.” The lawmakers argued that, when taken together, these statutes require the W-DNR to immediately allow a wolf hunt for the remainder of the 2021 season because the wolves were no longer under federal protection.
On January 22, in a 4-3 vote, the W-DNR Board voted against allowing a wolf hunt for the remainder of the 2021 season. Rather than starting a hunt right away, they claimed that they needed additional time “to develop a science-based harvest quota, gather input from tribes and update its wolf management plan.” This decision, however, was short-lived.
On February 3, Hunter Nation, Inc., a Kansas-based organization, filed a lawsuit challenging the W-DNR’s decision. The court ruled that, because of the state’s statutes mandating the hunting season, the W-DNR must allow it to occur during the remainder of the season. Complying, the W-DNR set a quota of 200 wolves, 81 of which were reserved for native Ojibwe tribes. In only three days, hunters unaffiliated with the tribes exceeded this quota by killing 218 wolves.
The Ninth Circuit Returns Protections for the Gray Wolf
Luckily, protections for the gray wolf are beginning to return. On February 10, 2022, a Federal District Court in the Ninth Circuit returned federal protections for wolves in Defenders of Wildlife v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 30123 (N.D. Cal. 2022). The court found that, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the gray wolves, they failed to consider threats to gray wolf populations outside of the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains and “didn’t rely on the best available science.”
This decision returned federal protections to gray wolves in the contiguous United States outside of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, which remain under state control. Many pro-hunting groups oppose the decision, claiming that the wolf populations have recovered enough and should be managed by the state. Conservation organizations, on the other hand, believe that the decision is a step in the right direction but that more government intervention is needed to protect wolf populations in the remaining states from overhunting. While this decision is a major step in wolf protection, it does not address the issue of what happened to the wolves when they were initially delisted.
Better Policies are Needed to Protect Animals Coming Off of the Endangered Species List
This saga has highlighted some of the weaknesses in the endangered species program. Even though the animals are protected while on the list, they can immediately be hunted once the government removes them. This is particularly the case in states with statutorily mandated hunting seasons for certain species. Once one of these species is removed from the endangered species list, the statutes act as a trigger, forcing the hunt to begin. These “trigger laws” have major impacts on the species and need to be addressed.
One of the major issues with the trigger laws is that they do not provide a chance for the state to ensure that the quotas they set are scientifically accurate. Rather, the hunt needs to start during a statutorily required period.
Additionally, the hunters may not follow the quotas set by the state. This situation occurred in the 2021 Wisconsin hunt when hunters unassociated with tribes killed over 200 wolves, nearly doubling their quota in only three days. This hunt had potentially devastating effects on the wolf population. Wisconsin’s Green Fire, a conservation group, estimates that the wolves’ reproduction rate will be depleted by 24–40% because of the loss of females and alpha males in the hunt. If these rates remained, it would lead to a rapid decrease in wolf populations.
To address this concern, the government need to implement further protections for animals that they delist. Even though the species’ population is reportedly stable at the time they are delisted, the sudden hunting can quickly return them to critical levels. One potential solution is to mandate a protection period between the delisting and when hunting can actually begin. This period will allow states to develop scientifically accurate quotas and ensure that their protocols for the hunt are up to date while negating the applicability of potential trigger laws hidden in a state’s statutes.