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Biden administration backs end to gray wolf hunting protections, despite concerns from activists

Last year, the Trump administration announced that the gray wolf would be removed from the list of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. Before gray wolves were protected by the act, the species was considered near extinction after a combination of hunting, trapping, and loss of habitat decimated its numbers.  

The Biden administration is now moving to uphold that decision, according to court documents filed Friday, despite concern from conservationists that it could jeopardize the recovery of the species.

Attorneys for the administration requested that a federal judge throw out a lawsuit from wildlife advocates that aims to restore Endangered Species Act protections for the animals, arguing that Trump's 2020 rule, implemented by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "follows the law and is supported by the administrative record." 

"The Service possesses substantial expertise on gray wolves and ESA implementation, and it made a reasoned determination that the best scientific and commercial data available in 2020 established that gray wolves no longer met the definition of a threatened or endangered species," the government argued. 

Under the Endangered Species Act of 1973, gray wolves were protected by federal law for more than 45 years. The act mandates that federal agencies not take actions that are likely to jeopardize the species or their habitats, and prohibits killing or harming the animals in most circumstances. They had originally been hunted to near-extinction due to the threat to livestock and big game herds.

Lawsuits to restore protections for the gray wolf, with plaintiffs including Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, and the Humane Society of the U.S. were rejected back in January, when the administrations changed. At the time, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Vanessa Kauffman said in a statement that the gray wolf "has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery." 

Wildlife experts and activists have criticized the Friday decision, arguing that a lack of federal protection will cause the animals to be killed in large numbers. "The Biden administration has betrayed its duty to protect and recover wolves," said Kristen Boyles, an attorney at the nonprofit environmental law group Earthjustice. "The Fish and Wildlife Service has the power to stop the immoral killing of wolves right now, and its refusal to act violates the law and the best science, as well as its treaty obligations to tribal nations."

In Wisconsin, hunters killed 218 wolves in a February season, blowing past their 119-wolf limit, according to The Associated Press. Wildlife officials set a 300-animal limit for this fall's wolf hunt, after the Department of Natural Resources board voted 5-2 last Wednesday to set aside the department's recommendation to cap kills at 130, the AP reported.

In Montana, the state's Republican-led House of Representatives passed two bills in March which would allow snares, wires that tighten around a prey's neck, to be set for wolves, and would extend wolf trapping season for an additional 30 days — even though there are only an estimated 850 wolves throughout the state, according to The Associated Press. 

The Humane Society of the United States has argued that Montana is waging "an outright war against wildlife." Amanda Wight, program manager for wildlife protection for the Humane Society, said Montana's lack of regulations will cause "a mass slaughter of wildlife, jeopardy to ecosystems, and a steep loss to the massive tourism economy and local jobs." 

Idaho has also loosened some of their hunting regulations, The Associated Press reported. The state now allows practices like hunting at night and from the air, as well as paying bounties for dead wolves, a tactic that once helped lead them to near-extinction. 

Tim Preso, lead attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice's lawsuit to restore protections for wolves outside of the Northern Rockies, told the AP that he was disappointed in the Biden administration's choice. 

"Why should we hammer the population back down and lose all the gains that have been made before any kind of remedial action? The writing's on the wall. Montana and Idaho are clear on what they're intending and Wisconsin is right behind them."

Republican state officials have said they aim to reduce the gray wolf population to preserve herds of large deer, bison and elk that are prized for hunting, as well as protecting farm animals, the AP reported. The Endangered Species Act has long been considered too powerful by some Republican lawmakers, who believe that the Act's restrictions on land use are too severe. 

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