BILLINGS, Mont. — The Biden administration said Wednesday that federal protections may need to be restored for gray wolves in the western U.S. after Republican-backed state laws made it much easier to kill the predators.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determination that the region’s wolves could again be in peril — after decades spent restoring them — will kick off a year-long biological review.
It marks an abrupt turnaround for agency officials who spent years in court defending their decision under the Obama administration to allow wolves to be hunted and trapped under state jurisdiction in the six-state Northern Rockies region.
Former President Donald Trump’s administration lifted protections across most of the remainder of the U.S. in his last days in office.
Republican lawmakers in Montana and Idaho have been intent on culling more wolf packs, which are blamed for periodic attacks on livestock and reducing elk and deer herds that many hunters prize.
The states’ Republican governors in recent months signed into law measures that expanded when, where and how wolves can be killed.
That raised alarm among Democrats, former wildlife officials and advocacy groups that said increased hunting pressure could cut wolf numbers to unsustainable levels.
The Humane Society of the U.S., the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups had filed legal petitions asking federal officials to intervene.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday that it had received “credible and substantial information that increased human-caused mortality in Idaho and Montana may pose a threat to wolves in those two States.”
The agency rejected a request to restore protections immediately. But it said the groups provided enough information to justify a year-long review of whether wolves warrant re-listing under the Endangered Species Act, which is for plants and animals considered at risk of extinction.
Center for Biological Diversity attorney Andrea Zaccardi said advocates welcomed the review but added that wolves were “under the gun now” and need protections right away.
“We are concerned that a lot of wolves could be wiped out while undertaking a year-long review,” she said.
Wolves were exterminated across most of the U.S. by the 1930s under government-sponsored poisoning and trapping campaigns. They were reintroduced from Canada into the Northern Rockies in the 1990s and expanded over the past two decades into parts of Oregon, Washington and California.
Dozens of American Indian tribes had asked the Biden administration on Tuesday to immediately enact emergency protections for gray wolves nationwide, saying states have become too aggressive in hunting the animals.
After protections were lifted in the Great Lakes in January, Wisconsin moved quickly to reduce the state’s wolf numbers. A pro-hunting group with close ties to conservative Republicans won a court order that allowed hunters — some using hounds — to kill 218 wolves in four days.
The changes in state law reflect an increasingly partisan approach to predator management in state houses dominated by Republicans.
Among the measures approved this year in Idaho, which has an estimated 1,500 wolves, was a law that provided money for the state to hire private contractors to kill the animals. The law also allows hunters to use night-vision equipment, chase wolves on snowmobiles or ATVs and shoot them from helicopters. It authorizes year-round wolf trapping on private property.
In Montana, with roughly 1,000 wolves, state wildlife authorities last month approved a harvest quota of 450 wolves, about 40% of the population. Previously-outlawed killing methods can now be used, including snaring, baiting and night hunting for wolves. Trapping seasons were lengthened, and each hunter or trapper can now take up to 10 animals.