The Federal Process of Reclassification and Delisting the Gray Wolf, Canis lupus

by Ron Refsnider, Retired US Department of the Interior, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Updated by International Wolf Center staff 2013

Purpose of the Endangered Species Act
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is intended to conserve endangered and threatened species and their habitats and to improve the species’ status so that they no longer need ESA protection. When their recovery has progressed to that point, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) takes steps to delist, or remove, the species from the federal list of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants. If the species had been listed as endangered, the USFWS sometimes reclassifies it to threatened status as an intermediate step toward removal of ESA protection. Once a species is removed from the federal list, management authority for the species generally returns to the states and tribes that have jurisdiction over the areas that the species inhabits.

The ESA should be thought of as an emergency room for species; it provides emergency temporary care to ensure the species’ survival and to pull it back from the brink of extinction. Hopefully, once species are listed as threatened or endangered the resulting intensive care they receive under the ESA leads to a “recovery to the extent that the species can be moved back to the more routine care and management of the states and tribes. The species can be delisted at that point. “Recovery under the ESA doesn’t mean that the species must be back to full health – restored to its past population level or throughout its historical range – before it can be delisted. Rather, “recovery under the ESA means that the species no longer needs ESA’s emergency care to keep it from becoming extinct in the foreseeable future.

Listing and Delisting are Federal Rulemakings

Rulemaking is the name of the formal process by which a species is listed as endangered or threatened, and eventually reclassified or delisted. (The same process is used for establishing special regulations for a species or for designating critical habitat.) The rulemaking process is designed to promote public involvement in the decision so that it is based on the best available information and to provide a full explanation of the decision when it is announced. For ESA listings, reclassifications, and delistings the rulemaking process has a minimum of four steps:

  1. The USFWS publishes the proposed change and the reasons for it in the Federal Register. The proposal is also publicized in other ways to ensure that interested individuals and organizations are aware of it.
  2. A public comment period of at least 60 days provides an opportunity for any interested party to provide data or opinions relevant to the proposed action. If requested, the USFWS will hold one or more public hearings. We will have a 120-day comment period for the gray wolf proposal, and numerous hearing and informational meetings will be held nation-wide.
  3. After the public comment period has closed, the USFWS reviews all new data and comments,and reconsiders the proposed action. Alternate actions or modifications of the proposal are also considered.
  4. The final decision is published in the Federal Register, announcing the effective date of the action. In some cases the final decision may be to withdraw the proposed action or to adopt a modified version of it. This decision is to be published within one year of the publication of the proposal.

Recovery Plans and Criteria to Evaluate Their Success

The USFWS currently is operating one gray wolf recovery program: the Southwest (Mexican Wolf’). The USFWS completed operations of two other gray wolf recovery programs: the northern U.S. Rockies, and the Western Great Lakes States (also known as the Eastern Timber Wolf Recovery Program) and has also considered development of a fourth recovery program for New York and several New England states. (USFWS also operates a separate recovery program for a related species, the red wolf (Canis rufus), which is being reintroduced to sites in the southeastern U.S.)

Each of the gray wolf recovery programs has its own recovery plan which was developed by experts on the species in that part of the country. Those plans contain recovery (that is, delisting) and reclassification criteria that specify goals for the distribution and numbers of wolves in each of the recovery regions. These criteria guide the USFWS in deciding if the ESA protections can be reduced (by reclassifing to threatened) or removed (by delisting the species).

The recovery and reclassification criteria spelled out in the recovery plans are not the only yardsticks that must be used to determine if federal status of the gray wolf should be changed. The ESA identifies five factors that must be considered in any listing, reclassification, or delisting decision:

  1. threats to, or actual destruction of, the habitat needed by the species;
  2. threats from the over-use of the species for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;
  3. threats from disease or predation;
  4. the amount of protection provided to the species or its habitat by other laws and regulations;
  5. any other natural or man-made factors that might affect the continued existence of the species.

Achieving, or nearing achievement, of the recovery plan’s delisting or recovery criteria causes the USFWS to evaluate the species using these five factors. This evaluation includes an assessment of whether these factors are likely to increase and re-endanger the species if it is delisted. A discussion of these five factors must be included in any ESA proposal that is published in the Federal Register.

Post-delisting Monitoring

As additional insurance to protect species that might have been delisted prematurely, the ESA requires that delisted species be monitored for at least five years. If monitoring indicates that the delisting was premature, the USFWS can relist the species, even on an emergency basis, to protect the species under the ESA. Emergency listings can be completed in a matter of weeks and take effect as soon as the relisting notice appears in the Federal Register. They provide full, but short-term, protection by the ESA while the USFWS determines if relisting is needed.

National Delisting Proposal

Developing such a complex and national proposal is a huge undertaking. The people of the United States have worked long and hard to bring the wolf back from the brink of extinction in several regions of the country.  It is the proper time to begin discussions on relaxing or removing federal protections. Hopefully, these discussions can step back from emotions and focus on the scientific information at hand. We may find that it’s nearly time to declare success for the recovery of the gray wolf in most areas and shift some of the federal attention and funding to other threatened and endangered animals and plants that are truly in need of emergency care. Or we may conclude that such changes would be premature.