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Conservationists signal intent to sue over decision not to restore wolves' federal protections

The letter comes less than a week after the government said it wouldn't add wolves in the Northern Rockies back onto the list of endangered species

Less than a week after the federal government announced it would not add Northern Rockies gray wolves back onto the list of endangered species, more than a dozen conservation groups on Wednesday forecasted their intention to sue over the decision.

Conservation groups argue that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency charged with oversight of species protected under the Endangered Species Act, used flawed population estimates and overestimated the population's genetic diversity in its finding that wolves are not at risk of extinction.

They also argue that the federal government is downplaying risks to the animals' viability posed by anti-predator laws in states like Montana, a claim that went to the heart of two petitions conservation groups submitted to USFWS in 2021 seeking a restoration of federal protections.

"The current killing regimes in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming put wolves at obvious risk of extinction in the foreseeable future, and this core population is key to wolf survival in the West," Western Watersheds Project Executive Director Erik Molvar said in a statement. "Even if the states' population estimates were defensible - and they aren't, according to recent scientific analyses - the feds are underestimating the extinction agenda of anti-wolf state governments and the small and tentative state of recovering wolf populations elsewhere in the West."

There are "vast portions of the West where wolves have yet to recover" and they "exist in only small populations in the West Coast and Colorado habitats they are slowly reinhabiting," according to Kelly Nokes, a Western Environmental Law Center attorney representing the conservation groups.

In a review of gray wolf habitat, demographics and distribution issued by USFWS last December, human-caused mortality is identified as the "primary stressor" for gray wolves. Still, human-caused mortality is not pronounced enough to lead to an extinction of Northern Rockies wolves in the next 100 years "as long as future mortality rates are within the bounds" of the agency's analysis, which informed the decision issued by USFWS on Feb. 2 not to relist the animals.

Last week Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said he supported USFWS's decision not to restore wolves' federal protections, according to reporting by the Daily Montanan. Montana has generally favored state management of its wildlife over more restrictive federal management frameworks, especially when it comes to predators like wolves and grizzly bears.

"In Montana, we have demonstrated our ability to appropriately conserve the gray wolf using a science-based approach, and we look forward to continuing to do so in the years to come," Gianforte said in a statement.

The notice of intent to sue starts a 60-day timer for the USFWS to review the conservation groups' claims. Once that timer runs out, the conservation groups can file a lawsuit in federal court challenging the agency's decision.

Groups that signed the notice of intent to sue include Wilderness Watch, Trap Free Montana, Alliance for the Wild Rockies and WildEarth Guardians.

Another coalition of environmental groups - The Center for Biological Diversity, The Humane Society of the United States and the Sierra Club - also filed a notice of intent to sue on Wednesday. That petition also highlights anti-predator laws in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, and questions the integrity of population estimates used to assess the size and distribution of wolves.

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