Varying Government Protection of Gray Wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountain Region

Friday, December 8, 2023
  • The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
  • Use of this article or any portions thereof requires written permission of the author.


Photo by <a href="">Marc-Olivier Jodoin</a> on <a href=" Photo by <a href="">Marc-Olivier Jodoin</a> on <a href="">Unsplash</a>

In April 2009, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) published a rule establishing the boundaries of the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf population and removing federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections from the gray wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountain region for all states except Wyoming.[1] The Northern Rocky Mountain region is defined as all of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, as well as part of Oregon[2], Washington[3], and Utah[4].[5] Under the rule, gray wolves in Wyoming remained protected under the ESA until Wyoming passed laws and developed a conservation plan for its gray wolf population.[6] In August 2010, a district court in Montana invalidated the rule.[7] However congressional members of the affected states were unhappy with the court decision and in April 2011, they attached a rider to the Department of Defense and Full-Year Continuing Appropriation Act that reinstated the 2009 rule.[8] In September 2012, the USFWS published a rule that delisted the gray wolves in Wyoming and, although it was challenged in court, it was eventually upheld.[9]

            With the exception of the more recent rule change in Wyoming, for over a decade the management of the gray wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountain region has been left to the individual states. This means that although the USFWS views the gray wolf population in the region as a unit, the protections for gray wolves in the various states can differ drastically.



In Wyoming, gray wolves are listed as predatory animals in most of the state, meaning they can be killed for any reason, in any legal manner, and the citizen that kills the gray wolf is under no obligation to turn the carcass over to, or even tell, the state government.[10] As can be seen in the image below, in the rest of Wyoming, the gray wolf population is either under tribal management, seasonally managed, closed to hunting, or managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the protections vary for gray wolves in each.[11]



Just north of Wyoming in Montana, the laws on killing gray wolves are drastically different. A private citizen can only kill a gray wolf if the wolf “is threatening human life or domestic dogs.”[12] In addition, a farmer with livestock may kill a gray wolf if it is “attacking, killing, or threatening to kill livestock….”[13] If a private citizen kills or injures a gray wolf, they must report the incident to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks as soon as possible, but within 72 hours and turn over the carcass.[14] However, the status quo in Montana may be about to change as in October 2023, Montana released its Draft Gray Wolf Conservation and Management Plan which, among other things, calls for a reduction in Montana’s gray wolf population of approximately 60%.[15]



            Idaho classifies gray wolves as big game meaning that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game regulates the hunting and trapping of gray wolves.[16] In May 2021, Idaho’s governor signed the Wolf Management bill into law.[17] The bill allowed hunters with a hunting tag to kill an unlimited number of gray wolves with the stated goal of reducing the gray wolf population in Idaho by 90%.[18]


Oregon, Washington, and Utah

            Oregon, Washington, and Utah are similar in that only parts of their states are within the Northern Rocky Mountain region. Gray wolves are protected under the ESA in the parts of the states that are not within the Northern Rocky Mountain region since Defenders of Wildlife v. USFWS in 2022.[19] However, in the parts of the states that are within the Northern Rocky Mountain region, the states take wildly different tacks towards gray wolves. Utah does not currently have any established gray wolf packs and in 2010 the Utah legislature directed the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to prevent any gray wolves from establishing in the delisted area.[20]


In Oregon, gray wolves were removed from the state endangered species list in 2015.[21] The management for gray wolves in Oregon is divided into eastern and western regions and depends on the number of active breeding pairs for three consecutive years in that region.[22] If there are less than four active breeding pairs it is in the conservation phase. If there are less than seven active breeding pairs it is in the transition phase. In both the conservation and transition phase, lethal removal of gray wolves is authorized only for specific depredation instances and human safety. If there are more than seven active breeding pairs it is in the management phase and allows for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to authorize killing gray wolves in other circumstances such as if the wild ungulate population dips too low or if there is long-term recurring livestock depredation.[23] The management phase does not allow general season hunts but does allow the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to authorize controlled hunts in specific circumstances.[24] The western region is currently in the conservation phase while the eastern region is in the management phase.[25]


In Washington, gray wolves are listed as endangered under state law and are a protected species.[26] It is illegal under state law to hunt, possess, harass, or kill a gray wolf in the state of Washington.[27]



            All six states have varying levels of protections for their gray wolf populations: from Wyoming, where the state is actively trying to reduce its gray wolf population; to Washington, which bans any private citizen from harming a gray wolf absent imminent danger. While Washington’s model of absolute protection for its gray wolf population may seem like the ideal for the conservation of the gray wolf population in the region, Oregon’s model may actually help the gray wolf more in the long run. As can be seen by the backlash to gray wolf protections in Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming, if the citizens in the state do not feel like their needs are also being met, they can turn to blaming the gray wolf. This can be particularly true with peoples’ livelihood is at stake, such as for ranchers in these rural states. This backlash results in the laws we see currently in these states that range from agnostic to outright hostile to their gray wolf populations.

Oregon’s model allows for a state to divide its regions so that one area of the state does not feel as if it is making up for the failings of another area. This is particularly useful in large, disparate states like Oregon where most of the population lives on the west side of the Cascade Mountain Range and many citizens on the eastern side feel as if they have little to no say in state government. In addition, Oregon’s model allows for different levels of protection for gray wolves depending on how many breeding pairs of gray wolves are active in the region. This allows for stronger protections for gray wolves when they are rare in the region and then less protection as they become more common. While the lesser protections may lead to more gray wolves being killed, it may also help to prevent the backlash to gray wolf protections that have affected other states.


[2] That portion of Oregon east of Highway 395 and Highway 78 north of Burns Junction and that portion of Oregon east of Highway 95 south of Burns Junction.

[3] That portion of Washington east of Highway 97 and Highway 17 north of Mesa and that portion of Washington east of Highway 395 south of Mesa.

[4] That portion of Utah east of Highway 84 and north of Highway 80.

[7] Defs. of Wildlife v. Salazar, 729 F. Supp. 2d 1207, 1228 (D. Mont. Aug. 5, 2010).

[19] Defs. of Wildlife v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Serv., 584 F. Supp. 3d 812 (N.D. Cal. 2022).