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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Gray wolves listed again, for better or worse

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One of the more contentious issues of 2014, now bleeding into 2015, has involved wolves, wolf hunting and recently the return of wolves here to full protected status under the Endangered Species Act.

In case you haven’t heard the most recent rumbles and shouting, the gist is that on Dec. 19, a federal judged ruled to place gray wolves in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin back on the Endangered Species List. The 111-page ruling moves management of the species from the states, back to the federal government for the fourth time, thereby halting the states’ annual hunting and trapping seasons for the foreseeable future.

Most wolf advocates are celebrating. Most wolf hunters, deer hunters, stockmen, people who fear wolves, and biologists who believe wolves are not endangered here are bummed. The relevant state agency folks have expressed disappointment and concern.

So it was interesting on Dec. 22 to hear a variety of experts, board members of the International Wolf Center in Ely, speak out on the controversial topic in a phone press conference. They included Dr. Dave Mech, senior research scientist with the U.S. Department of Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey, who founded the Center, and Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, who led the project to return wolves to Yellowstone National Park.

So much of the public’s discussion, and theirs, had to do with whether Great Lake States’ wolves should be considered endangered, should the ESA recover or preserve them in new places, and will this new status result in unintentional negative consequences, like an unfortunate increase in the illegal shooting of wolves?

Wolves in the three states currently have endangered status by law, but according to these experts, they are not biologically endangered. They say that wolves in Wisconsin, having been monitored for 35 years, are doing just fine. The 2,500 wolves in Minnesota show no signs of being endangered, and in Michigan wolf numbers are quite secure. Based on the numbers, relisting them here seems illogical.

Mech explained that under state management in recent years, policies could not possibly have driven wolves to endangerment without the federal government intervening. It follows the states’ practices for five years after delisting, and automatically re-lists wolves in states where any recovery benchmarks are breached. The number of wolves killed during Minnesota’s hunting seasons has not been high enough to significantly, negatively affect the population, Mech said.

The judge’s ruling that placed wolves back under endangered status in Wisconsin and Michigan will mean that the states cannot kill wolves there that take livestock. In Minnesota, wolves will return to threatened status, which does allow for depredating wolves to be removed by government agents. In all three states, hunting and trapping seasons instituted by the states are now prohibited.

Some speculate that anger over the wolves’ protected status will result in more illegal killing by those who support hunting and trapping seasons. An undercurrent of animosity against the government or antagonism to wolves could work against wolves in this case.

Another fear of wolf supporters is that a U.S. Congress with an incoming Republican majority could legislate wolves off the Endangered Species List as it did in Montana and Idaho. After several court decisions went against the repeated delisting of wolves there, Congress set a precedent by removing wolves from the list and shielding the law from any future court reverses.

“I could see Congress deciding to legislatively delist the wolf in the upper Midwest,” Mech said. “Or given the make up of the future Congress, I could imagine it gutting the act.”

While Mech does not expect the relisting and increased protection here to have a major impact on Minnesota’s wolf population, he said it could increase the number of dispersers that leave the state.

“If Minnesota wolves were to be continually protected, some would have a greater chance of dispersing into North and South Dakota than if hunters were taking a few hundred a year. I don’t think for a minute that wolves are going to repopulate Iowa, Indiana or Illinois, because people won’t let them. But it’s conceivable that in some years they could repopulate parts of the Dakotas.”

The court ruling that noted the ESA requires wolves to be recovered to a significant portion of wolf range affects more than just the Midwest, Phillips said. It touches on the fate of gray wolves elsewhere.

“The gray wolf still only occupies about 15 percent of its original range. There are still great big chunks of the continental U.S. that support extensive tracks of suitable habitat that remain wolfless,” Phillips said. “Some would say the law requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to look at those places too.”

U.S. wolf recovery has been done piecemeal—in the Great Lakes States, the Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, with some thinking about the Northeast. The USFWS has avoided a systematic nationwide approach that dismisses a “significant portion of wolf range” approach. The recovery has been implemented regionally, and that’s not what the law calls for, according to Phillips. Highly suitable expanses on the western half of Colorado could provide habitat for great recovery efforts. Why are some pieces of the puzzle being ignored, he asks.

Next steps in the ongoing legal process could include an appeal of the judge’s ruling by the USFWS, which would likely involve a two-year timeframe, or the judge’s order could be left in place. The agency could move Michigan and Wisconsin wolves to a less restrictive threatened status. And the USFWS could take a new regulatory approach, broadening recovery efforts to other regions that would support healthy wolf populations, such as Phillips suggested.

“The ESA is singularly responsible for the distribution of gray wolves in the country today because it afforded important protections,” Phillips said. “It gave the USFSW sufficient rationale to move forward with determined recovery programs that resulted in great successes…because we are dealing with a great ecological generalist. If you give a gray wolf an even halfway decent restoration plan, it’ll take care of the rest.”

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