By Barbara Kessler

Gray wolves, all but de-listed from the Endangered Species Act protections through a series of government steps this year, may have won a reprieve. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official, the government will be withdrawing its declaration that the animals are fully recovered.

The move, reported by the Associated Press, follows a federal court decision this summer that sided with environmentalists arguing that the wolves need continued protections.

The wolves rebounded from near extinction in their traditional U.S. habitat, encompassing the Yellowstone National Park area and parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, after being reintroduced into Yellowstone in the mid 1990s. A decade later, the wolves’ growth prompted local wildlife officials, ranchers and others to call for their removal from the Endangered Species list.

The delisting was approved by the Bush Administration this spring and the states were preparing hunting guidelines for this fall when environmentalists sued to stop the delisting. A consortium of wildlife and environmental groups, led by Earthjustice and including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Defenders of Wildlife, argued that the hunting would overly thin the population of about 1,500 wolves in the three-state region and separate the wolf packs. The separated packs would be unable to intermingle, which keeps them healthy and genetically viable.

While recovered from very low population numbers in the 1990s, the wolves were simply not bountiful enough to sustain themselves against the planned bounty hunting that de-listing would have allowed, the groups argued.

The withdrawal of the de-listing rule still requires final approval from the U.S. Justice Department.

“This is likely a temporary victory,” said Andrew Wetzler, Director of NRDC’s Endangered Species Project. “The states will learn their lessons from this experience and mount another delisting effort down the line. But the continued recovery and federal protection for the wolf is still a big win for the Endangered Species Act. It shows that the Endangered Species Act works.”

NRDC senior wildlife advocate Louisa Willcox lamented that the process had already led to many wolf deaths.

“More than 100 wolves were needlessly killed as a result of the government’s ill-fated delisting effort—and hundreds more would have been shot this fall if federal protections had not been restored,” she said. “One of the Endangered Species Act’s greatest success stories would quickly be undone if the killing had continued.”

For more information, see the NRDC blog on wolves.

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