On March 3, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld a final rule delisting the gray wolf in Wyoming under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Defenders of Wildlife v. Zinke, No. 14-5300 (D.C. Cir. Mar. 3, 2017).  This decision is the most recent in a series of court rulings and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) actions that followed the Service’s initial 2011 proposal to delist the gray wolf in Wyoming based on the recovery of the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf population and the State of Wyoming’s conservation management plan for the wolf.

The D.C. Circuit reversed the district court’s vacatur of the rule delisting the gray wolf in Wyoming, instead concluding that the Service adequately and reasonably evaluated the state regulatory mechanisms in place to conserve the species. Central to this case was the question of whether existing regulatory mechanisms, in order to be “adequate,” must be binding.  The D.C. Circuit concluded, consistent with a number of judicial decisions in recent years, that “existing regulatory mechanisms” do not need to be binding to support a conclusion that a species does not warrant listing under the ESA.  Thus, the issue before the Court was whether the rulemaking record demonstrated that the Service exercised its judgment in a reasonable way in concluding that Wyoming’s management plan will adequately protect Wyoming’s gray wolf population after delisting.

The Court deferred to the Service’s expertise in determining that the state management plan is a reliable indicator of how Wyoming plans to implement its statutes and regulations, including that the State would not manage the species down to its minimum population level (at least 10 breeding pairs and at least 100 individuals) and would continue to maintain a buffer above that minimum. The Court held that the Service reasonably concluded that Wyoming’s efforts, as set forth in its management plan, were sufficiently certain to be implemented based on the strength of the State’s incentives to manage wolf populations so as to avoid relisting.