District Court Reverses Trump-Era Rule, Restoring Gray Wolf ESA Protections

Nossaman LLP

Last week, a decision out of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California restored Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the gray wolf (Canis lupus) across most of the contiguous United States.

In 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) issued a final rule removing federal protections for the last two remaining gray wolf entities listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA.  The final rule asserted delisting was warranted because neither the Minnesota entity nor the 44-state entity qualified as a species, subspecies, or distinct population segment.  Accordingly, the Final Rule delisted gray wolves nationally based on the purported recovery of two large metapopulations of gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes region.  Although the metapopulations occupied a fraction of the species’ historical range, the Service had concluded that they were still capable of sustaining viable gray wolf populations throughout the lower 48 states.

In 2021, environmental groups filed three separate cases in the Northern District of California, challenging the final rule under the ESA and Administrative Procedure Act.  In defense of the final rule, the Service argued that its decision should be upheld on the basis that the Minnesota and 44-state entities did not meet the statutory definition of a “species,” and were therefore precluded from listing under the ESA.

Ultimately, the court disagreed with the Service, finding that upholding the final rule on this basis would have amounted to “an impermissible backdoor route to the de facto delisting of already-listed species.”  The court further found that “the Service’s analysis relied on two core wolf populations to delist wolves nationally and failed to provide a reasonable interpretation of the ‘significant portion of its range’ standard.”  

Based on these deficiencies, the court vacated and remanded the final rule back to the Service, thereby restoring protections to the species in the Central and Southern Rocky Mountains, Great Lakes region, and West Coast states.  The decision does not restore protections to gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountain states of Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming, as those populations lost federal protections prior to the final rule challenged in this case.  However, as Nossaman previously reported, the Service determined in September 2021 that protecting the species in the Northern Rockies may be warranted, and is now conducting a status review which will result in a 12-month petition finding.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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