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 initial 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 the federal wildlife agency and brought a swift pushback from Montana's Republican governor, who said officials in Washington shouldn't be “second guessing” the state's wildlife policies.
Federal officials had spent years in court defending their decisions on wolves, including under Biden and dating back to the Obama administration, when wolves were returned to state jurisdiction in the six-state Northern Rockies, opening the door to hunting for the first time in decades.
Former President Donald Trump's administration lifted protections across most of the remainder of the U.S. in his last days in office.
But the deference given by federal officials to state wildlife agencies is now being tested. Republican lawmakers in Montana and Idaho are 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., Center for Biological Diversity and other groups had filed legal petitions asking federal officials to intervene.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said Wednesday the petitions provided “credible and substantial information that increased human-caused mortality in Idaho and Montana may pose a threat to wolves" across the western region.
Wilderness areas in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are strongholds for wolf populations, helping fuel their expansion in recent years into portions of Oregon, Washington state, California and Colorado.
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.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said the state had been effectively managing its wolves, crafting regulations from the newly enacted laws to make sure wolf populations remain sustainable.
“We don't need Washington coming in and second-guessing our science-based approach,” Gianforte said in a statement.
Gianforte trapped and killed a wolf in February near Yellowstone National Park. He later received a warning from wildlife officials because he had failed to take a mandated trapper education course in violation of state hunting regulations.
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.
In 2011, Montana Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson pushed a budget rider through Congress that lifted protections for wolves after courts blocked earlier attempts.
A Tester spokesman on Wednesday called Montana's new wolf policies “shortsighted." Tester wants science to drive wildlife management, and he plans to closely track the results of the federal review, spokesman Roy Lowenstein said.
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. They said wolves are culturally important to a host of tribes and accused the federal government of failing to listen to their concerns about lifting protections.
After protections were lifted in the Great Lakes in January, Wisconsin moved quickly to reduce its 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 the state in four days.
Recent changes in wolf management 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, 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.
Even before the changes, Montana wildlife officials expected wolf numbers in the state to drop from around 1,150 animals to 950 or fewer, following a particularly successful hunting season over the past year.
Follow Matthew Brown on Twitter: @MatthewBrownAP