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Are Great Lakes Wolves Next Up for Delisting?

Are Great Lakes Wolves Next Up for Delisting?

Photo credit: Keith Crowley

Midwest hunters and game managers now have reason for renewed optimism over the possibility of gray wolves being removed from the Endangered Species List.

On Mar. 3, 2017, a three-judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of Wyoming’s current wolf management plan, allowing Wyoming to once again hold a hunting season on the thriving wolf population in the state—its first since 2014. Following this new victory for science-based wolf management, the focus now shifts to the current Senate Bill 164 (S. 164) requesting the removal of wolves from the Endangered Species List in the Western Great Lakes region.

Like their Western counterparts, officials from the three affected states—Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan—have repeatedly asked that wolves be delisted in order to manage the increasing population. In 2011, wolves were officially delisted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in the Western Great Lakes region and managed hunts began the following year in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Even then, it was obvious that wolves were in no danger of extirpation and that quota-based hunts were the most effective way to manage them.

Unfortunately, those controlled hunts were short lived. As anti-hunting groups quickly brought lawsuits against the delisting, the National Rifle Association (NRA), Safari Club International (SCI) and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) intervened to defend the USFWS’ decision to delist the wolves. Unfortunately, the antis found a sympathetic judge, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, who dismissed the testimony of acknowledged wolf experts and relisted the wolves in 2014. Renowned wolf authority David Mech said that Judge Howell’s ruling would “surprise a lot of people, especially wolf biologists.”

Those “surprised biologists” knew that wolves were simply not endangered in Michigan, Minnesota or Wisconsin—not then and not now. Since surveys began in 1975, the USFWS estimate for the wolf population in Minnesota hasn’t dipped below 1,000 and recently has approached 3,000. Minnesota is conservatively estimated to now have 2,278 wolves. In other words, the number of wolves in northern Minnesota alone exceeds the entirety of the population in the northern Rocky Mountain States.

In Wisconsin, where a wolf recovery plan began in the late 1980s, the population exceeded the management goal of 350 wolves by 2004 and is now approaching 900. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has similar growth in wolf numbers with a population of 600-plus. It’s worth noting that the nearly 3,800 wolves of the Western Great Lakes region are contained in an area less than half the size of the Northern Rocky Mountain region.

Frankly, wolf recovery is a phenomenal success story in wildlife management. And since state game managers had largely handled the recovery phase of the wolf program, why shouldn’t they have control once the goals were reached? The 2011 delisting proved that USFWS officials agreed they should.

"The bottom line is that wolves are here to stay. It’s time to manage them wisely and sustainably in the Great Lakes region and across the United States."Enter anti-hunting zealots known as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The HSUS wants all hunting prohibited, but it is especially vocal regarding predator hunting. Assisting with its anti-hunting agenda is Earthjustice—a legal group that specializes in filing lawsuits against agencies like the USFWS and the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). With regional offices nationwide, the group’s legal, policy and communications teams use manipulated data to back their dire assessment of wolf population dynamics and tie up previous rulings with specious lawsuits. It’s a tactic that frustrates real-world wolf experts, as well as the hunters and non-hunters alike whose tax money goes toward defending those lawsuits.

The tactic works because the antis keep the target moving. Prior to the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction in 1995, population goals—goals agreed to by the antis—were set at 300 wolves and 30 breeding pairs in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Those goals were surpassed way back in 2002, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the “endangered” designation was removed and management hunts began in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Why the delay? Frivolous legal wrangling—of course, sponsored by the HSUS—which suddenly decided the original population goals were too low. Moving targets are harder to hit.

Another predictable tactic used by the antis is playing on emotions with inflammatory language designed to confuse the public. For example, Earthjustice calls current S. 164 the “War on Wolves Act.” This is how the antis sell their agenda to their deep-pocket donors, despite that fact that the bill is sponsored by Republicans and Democrats and only seeks to restore the original USFWS ruling made in 2011.

The bill synopsis reads, “S. 164 - A bill to direct the Secretary of the Interior to reissue the final rules relating to the listing of the gray wolf in the Western Great Lakes and the State of Wyoming under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.” There’s nothing radical in S. 164. The bill is simply a request for reissue of the science-based judgement from 2011.

However, Earthjustice’s Senior Legislative Counsel, Marjorie Mulhall, completely dismisses the scientific evidence and instead heads straight for emotional hyperbole, stating, “A new congress has resurfaced an old vendetta against imperiled wolves. If this legislation is signed into law, wolves in Wyoming will be subjected to unregulated killing across the vast majority of the state ... now this ‘War on Wolves Act’ would allow for the same unregulated killing that nearly wiped out the species in the first place.”

Fortunately, the courts recognize these ruses and ultimately ruled in favor of allowing Wyoming to return to holding a wolf hunting season. The recent U.S. Court of Appeals (USCA) opinion reads in part, “The Rule includes adequate provisions on genetic connectivity between wolf subpopulations and does not imperil the wolves in a ‘significant portion’ of their range.”

Hopefully this positive trend will continue, ultimately allowing Great Lakes state wildlife managers to regain control of their own resources. They know that hunting is an effective and economical management tool for all game species, including wolves. The bottom line is that wolves are here to stay. It’s time to manage them wisely and sustainably in the Great Lakes region and across the United States.

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