▶ Watch Video: Gray wolves of Yellowstone National Park

A judge in California ruled on Thursday that gray wolves should be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Two years ago, the Trump administration removed them from the list — and from the protection of federal law.

Senior District Judge Jeffrey S. White, of United States District Court for the Northern District of California, found on Thursday that the 2020 decision was based only on recovered gray wolf populations in the Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains, and did not take into account threats to the species in other portions of the U.S. Just three days prior to the judge’s ruling, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland published an essay in USA Today mourning the current state of the gray wolf species.

White’s decision only applies to 44 of the Lower 48 states, and does not include Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and New Mexico. Congress delisted Montana and Idaho in 2011, and Wyoming in 2017, according to the Associated Press. New Mexico’s wolves never lost federal protection.

Last February in Wisconsin, hunters killed 218 wolves in one hunting season, blowing past their 119-wolf limit. State wildlife officials then set a 300-animal limit for last fall’s wolf hunt after the Department of Natural Resources board voted 5-2 to set aside the department’s recommendation to cap kills at 130. 

In addition, Yellowstone National Park officials said in January that 20 gray wolves roamed outside of park boundaries and were shot by hunters; the most killed in a hunting season in the last 25 years. 

Activists and environmental activists decried the Biden administration’s decision in August to back the Trump administration’s removal of the gray wolf from federal protection.

“The Biden administration has betrayed its duty to protect and recover wolves,” said Kristen Boyles, an attorney at the nonprofit environmental law group Earthjustice, at the time. “The Fish and Wildlife Service has the power to stop the immoral killing of wolves right now, and its refusal to act violates the law and the best science, as well as its treaty obligations to tribal nations.”

On Thursday, CEO and president of Defenders of Wildlife Jamie Rappaport Clark said White’s decision was “a significant victory for gray wolves.”

“Restoring federal protections means that these vitally important animals will receive the necessary support to recover and thrive in the years ahead,” she wrote in the statement.

Hunter Nation, an advocacy group against increased regulations, said that it prefers “to trust local experts and conservation and hunting partners” rather than “activist judges” who “don’t spend time in the woods or never have to deal with the negative consequences of an uncontrolled wolf population.” 

Since Montana and Idaho were delisted more than a decade ago, the two states have encouraged hunting gray wolves. Montana’s Republican-led House of Representatives passed two bills in March 2021 that allowed snares to be set for wolves and extended wolf trapping season for an additional 30 days — even though there are only an estimated 850 wolves in the state, the AP reports. The Humane Society of the United States has argued that Montana is waging “an outright war against wildlife.” 

Meanwhile, Idaho allows practices such as hunting at night and from the air, as well as paying bounties for dead wolves, a tactic that once helped lead them to near-extinction, according to the AP. 

Now, the Fish and Wildlife Service will review the decision.