Northern Rockies Gray Wolf

Background and Recovery

Then and Now

Up until the 1800s, hundreds of thousands of wolves were thought to have roamed across the West from the Great Plains to the Pacific Coast. But by the 1940s, they had been virtually eliminated in the lower 48 to make way for ranching communities and other human settlements.

Gray wolves were one of the first species to be federally protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1974, which made it illegal to kill them. In the late ‘70s, wolves began recolonizing parts of northwest Montana from just over the border in Canada, and plans to restore the species across the Northern Rockies were set in motion.

In 1995 and 1996, 66 wolves were captured in Canada and reintroduced to central Idaho and Yellowstone National Park. Those wolves made an incredible recovery and quickly repopulated much of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. In recent years, wolves have also moved into neighboring parts of eastern Washington and Oregon. By the end of 2011, the estimated population was 1,774 wolves in the Northern Rockies region.

Unfortunately, because of political maneuvering in Congress, wolves lost their federal protections prematurely across most of the Northern Rockies in 2011. Aggressive wolf hunts have already resumed in Idaho and Montana, and Wyoming is preparing to target wolves across the majority of the state. As a result, the future of wolf recovery across the region remains uncertain.

Key Recovery Milestones

In 1987, Defenders began a landmark program to compensate Montana ranchers for livestock lost to wolves. Over the next 23 years, more than $1.4 million was spent on compensation region-wide, helping to build tolerance within the ranching community. This long-standing, successful program was officially transitioned to the states in 2010 when a federal program took its place.

Despite these efforts to gain social acceptance for wolves on the ground, repeated attempts were made to prematurely strip protections for wolves in all or part of the Northern Rockies. Between 2003 and 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tried to delist the species at least three separate times. Defenders and many of our allies successfully defeated each of these in court.

In early 2009, the Bush administration made one more last-ditch attempt to strip federal protections for wolves across the Northern Rockies based on individual state management plans. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service moved forward with delisting wolves in Idaho and Montana, but not Wyoming where the state’s plan was deemed inadequate. Defenders and 12 other conservation groups challenged the delisting and filed for a separate injunction to stop proposed wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana. Unfortunately, the injunction was denied and 72 and 188 wolves were killed respectively in Montana and Idaho during the first wolf hunt since the species was eradicated nearly 80 years prior. Protections were later reinstated in 2010 when a district court found in favor of Defenders, saying it was illegal to remove protections based on state boundaries.

Under intense political pressure from anti-wolf extremists, Congress passed a rider In 2011 as part of a much larger, must-pass funding bill that reissued the 2009 delisting rule and barred it from further judicial review. Federal protections were officially removed in Idaho and Montana, and later in Wyoming, despite the similarity of the state's management plan to its original, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had rejected. Defenders is actively challenging the Wyoming delisting in court. 

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