By: Lexi McGargill

“Number of people killed last year retrieving change from a vending machine: four. Number of people killed by a wolf attack: zero.”[1] This quote, while humorous, signals a shift in thinking by directly addressing wildlife conservation as a quasi-political subject.[2] For most of the United States’ history, wolves were considered dangerous predators that harm farmers and otherwise cause damage to our ever-expanding industrial society.[3] Unfortunately, these opinions have heavily influenced current state legislation regulating wolf hunting in Montana, Idaho, and Wisconsin.

Under his administration, President Trump removed the last of the protections for wolves under the Endangered Species Act, thus allowing states to permit wolf hunting and irreparably harm wolf populations and their environments.[4]In response to President Trump’s actions and President Biden’s failure to take remedial steps, dozens of indigenous tribes wrote to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to ask her to relist the wolf on an emergency basis for 240 days, ensuring immediate protection. The letter said, in part:

“Had either the Trump or Biden Administrations consulted tribal nations, as treaty and trust responsibilities require, they would have heard that as a sacred creature, the wolf is an integral part of the land-based identity that shapes our communities, beliefs, customs and traditions…”[5]

The Endangered Species Act is a federal act that provides protections and restrictions to protect animals throughout North America.[6] The purpose was explicitly written into the statute as §1531 and is to “provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species. . .”[7] §1531(a)(3) specifically protects animals that hold great significance to the Nation and her people.[8]

Wolves hold particular significance to Native American tribes throughout North America. For example, to the Anishinaabe, wolves are brothers and what happens to the wolves happens to humanity.[9] Thus, the overhunting of wolves in several states is a grave concern for many Native American tribes across the country.[10] Marvin Defoe, Red Cliff Tribe’s representative, spoke on this topic further in an official statement after dozens of tribes across the country wrote the above-mentioned letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.[11]

The egregious overhunting of the North American gray wolf occurring in Montana, Idaho, and Wisconsin justifies reinstating federal protections under the §1531(a)(3) of the Endangered Species Act.[12] Montana changed its hunting laws in 2021 to reintroduce hunting practices that have been criticized by animal rights activists, indigenous tribes, and hunting organizations as unethical and unsportsmanlike.[13] The Montana laws allow hunting practices that have been previously banned, like snare trapping and spotlighting to be used.[14] Snare trapping is not allowed in most states because there is no way to ensure that a hunter only traps the intended animal.[15] Snare traps often catch other, protected, animals and further reduce vital animal populations.[16] Montana also now permits the state to issue bounties to hunters who bring in wolves, further incentivizing overhunting.[17] Finally, because Montana borders Yellowstone, many of the wolves killed are protected Yellowstone wolves that unknowingly cross the border.[18]

Extreme overhunting has already been seen in Wisconsin, where the 2021 wolf hunting season was cut short after hunters were found to have exceeded the established wolf quota by 83%.[19] Wisconsin’s overhunting is already proving what activists cautioned would happen if wolves lost their endangered status. Wisconsin’s hunting practices are especially dangerous as they allow hunters to use dogs, bringing harm to the wolf population and domesticated hunting dogs.[20]The dogs are used to track wolves back to their dens and kill the wolf pups that are hidden inside.[21] This prevents the wolf population from rebuilding as there is no prescribed off-season or limits on cub age.

Prior court cases lay a foundation for Federal intervention to remedy the impact Montana, Idaho, and Wisconsin’s hunting laws have on the North American gray wolf.[22] In 2010, the Wildlife Defenders challenged the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to remove some protections for wolves under the Endangered Species Act.[23] The court held that the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Act by only applying the Act’s protections to a limited geographical area.[24] Then, in 2017, the Defenders of Wildlife brought a suit against the Fish and Wildlife Service after the organization took away federal protections for gray wolves in Wyoming.[25] However, the Defenders of Wildlife only succeeded in part as the court found that the Fish and Wildlife Service did not act “arbitrarily and capriciously” when making its determinations about how many breeding pairs existed in Wyoming and in its determination on how large the wolves’ hunting grounds were.[26]

The concerns about protecting wolves are not new as the hunting laws get more permissive, the number of activists and population groups joining the cause to call for their reenlistment in the Endangered Species Act is only growing. The great significance that the North American gray wolf holds to indigenous tribes throughout the United States and the current exploitive, dangerous, and unethical hunting practices permitted by States necessitate its reclassification under § 1531(a)(3) of the Endangered Species Act. Not only are wolves critical to the environment as they help control overabundant prey populations, but the wolves also hold a position of great importance in indigenous communities throughout the United States that must be protected.[27] Swift action by the Biden Administration or Federal courts is necessary to prevent irreparable damage to the wolf population and communities that rely on it for spiritual practices or ecological regulation.

[1] See The West Wing: The Crackpots and These Women (NBC Television Broadcast October 20, 1999) (quoting the character C.J. Craig as she speaks to the President about wolf protection in the United States).

[2] See id. (noting that the West Wing is a notoriously liberal television show that ran from 1999 to 2006).

[3] See Alia Winn Mulder, Impacts of Montana Public Wolf Hunting and Trapping on Tolerance and Acceptance of Gray Wolves Among Resident Ranchers, Trappers, and Big Game Hunters, Graduate Student Theses, Dissertations, & Professional Papers, The Univ. of Mont. 4267, 58-59 (2014), (recording negative opinions such as “wolves kill for fun” and the labelling of wolves as “super predators”).

[4] See The Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C.A. § 1531 (2015); Gray Wolf, The Defenders of Wildlife, (stating that wolves are necessary to keep the deer and elk populations stable and that the positive ripple effects of healthy wolf populations are only starting to be studied).

[5] See Todd Richmond, US Tribes Demand Emergency Protection for Wolves, AP News (Sept. 14, 2021),

[6] See The Endangered Species Act, supra note 4.

[7] See id. (noting that the United States has committed to protecting animals throughout North America and protecting animals per international agreements).

[8] See id.

[9] See Leah Asmelash, Native American Tribes Sue Wisconsin to Stop Planned Gray Wolf Hunt, CNN (Sept. 22, 2021), (explaining the spiritual significance wolves hold to six Ojibwe tribes).

[10] See id.

[11] See id.

[12] See The Endangered Species Act § 1531  (quoting the Act, “these species of fish, wildlife, and plants are of esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation and its people”).

[13] See Hunting and Trapping Regulations, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (2021), (seeing that baiting is now legal for only wolves as is the use of artificial daylight or “spotlighting” at night); see also Todd Wilkinson, Montana Defiantly Puts Yellowstone Wolves in its Crosshairs, Mountain Journal (Sept. 9, 2021) (discussing how the use of spotlighting, snares, and baiting have long been considered unethical by the Boone and Crockett Club, an organization founded by former president, Theodore Roosevelt).

[14] See Matthew Brown & John Flesher, Biden Backs End to Wolf Protections but Hunting Worries Grow, AP News(Aug. 20, 2021),–d83b725f9f1ffe1ed67e46bae7143a9d (explaining the recently loosened hunting restrictions in states).

[15] See Wilkinson, supra note 13 (noting that snaring and spot lighting are also now legal in Idaho to hunt wolves despite the risks to domesticated animals and endangered wild animals such as the wolverine and the lynx).

[16] See id.

[17] See id.

[18] See id. (emphasizing how vital the wolves are to the revitalization of Yellowstone).

[19] See id.

[20] See id. (noting that hunters are compensated if their dogs are injured or killed, leading to more dangerous situations and a disregard for the dogs).

[21] See Wilkinson, supra note 13 Montana Defiantly Puts Yellowstone Wolves in its Crosshairs, Mountain Journal (Sept. 9, 2021)

[22] See generally Defenders of Wildlife v. Zinke, 849 F.3d 1077 (D.C. 2017); Defenders of Wildlife v. Salazar, 729 F. Supp. 2d 1207 (Mont. 2010).

[23] See Salazar at 1211 (Mont. 2010) (alleging five different grounds for violating the Endangered Species Act).

[24] See id. at 1228 (finding that a species cannot be selectively delisted from the Endangered Species List).

[25] See Zinke at 1079 (noting that there was a similar case in 2014, but it was largely overturned by the Zinke ruling and is no longer accepted law).

[26] See id. at 1088 (affirming the lower court’s finding).

[27] See Richmond, supra note 5 (emphasizing that multiple Indigenous tribes articulated a significant connection with wolves).

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