The saga of protecting gray wolves (Canis lupus) under the Endangered Species Act took another twist late Friday as conservation groups and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DoI) reached a compromise to remove protections for the animals in two states. Wolves were first listed as an endangered species in 1974 but lost their status in the northern Rockies in 2008, the start of a long line of lawsuits and legal rulings that saw wolves' legal protections removed and re-instated several times. More than 100 wolves in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming were shot by hunters during the interval in 2009 when protections were lifted.

Most recently, Congress has considered removing wolves from the endangered species list, and many environmental groups feared a decision would be based less on the science of wolf conservation than on politics.

The legal settlement was filed with the U.S. Federal Court in Montana and now awaits a judge's ruling. If accepted, wolves would retain their protections in Washington State, Oregon, Wyoming and Utah, but would lose their federal protection in Idaho and Montana, where the states would regain "management authority" over the animals.

Ten of the 14 conservation groups that have been fighting for wolves since 2009 signed on to the settlement. Earthjustice, the environmental law group serving as counsel through much of the last few years' legal proceedings, stepped down on Friday, stating "we can no longer represent multiple clients in litigation because the clients' interests become adverse to one another."

The settlement specifies that Montana and Idaho will be allowed to manage their wolf populations in accordance to approved conservation plans, which sets the stage for hunting to resume there. Meanwhile, the DoI has agreed to conduct scientific monitoring of wolf populations in the other four states and have the results reviewed by an independent scientific advisory board in three years.

Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D) said on Friday that he will continue his efforts to fully remove wolves from the Endangered Species Act.

According to numbers released earlier this month by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are now approximately 1,700 wolves in the U.S. northern Rockies. Idaho and Montana are home to about 1,200 of those animals. Oregon and Washington have very small populations, totaling about 40. Utah does not have any resident wolves. The compromise does not affect wolves outside the northern Rockies. The only self-sustaining populations outside of this region are in Alaska, Wisconsin and Michigan.


Photo: Gray wolf, courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service