A federal judge in Montana has reinstated Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection for gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. Defenders of Wildlife v. Salazar, No. 09-77 (D. Mont. 8/5/10). Filed by several conservation groups, the lawsuit challenged a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services (FWS) decision to “designate and partially remove protections for the northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf distinct population segment (‘DPS’) under the ESA,” effectively keeping the protections in effect in Wyoming only.  

Plaintiffs argued that the delisting decision violated the ESA because (i) it partially protects a listed species; (ii) it is based on outdated and unscientific recovery targets; (iii) there is a lack of genetic connectivity to support the decision; (iv) inadequate regulatory mechanisms protect wolves without the ESA’s protection; (v) FWS failed to consider loss of historic range when determining whether the wolves are “recovered”; (vi) FWS disregarded the status of gray wolves throughout the lower-48 states in conducting its analysis; (vii) the decision delists a previously unlisted population of wolves; (viii) the FWS defined the DPS contrary to the ESA and FWS’s own policy; and (ix) the decision impermissibly designates wolves in Wyoming as a “non-essential experimental” population.  

The court accepted many of plaintiffs’ arguments but based its decision to reinstate ESA protections on the statute’s plain language, which “does not allow the agency to divide a DPS into a smaller taxonomy.” According to the court, “[t]he northern Rocky Mountain DPS must be listed, or delisted, as a distinct population, and protected accordingly.”