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Ruling sparks concerns about more illegal wolf killings

Scientists are also concerned that a recent ruling could cause Congress to make an end run around the Endangered Species Act, as it did in 2011. 

The latest ruling means the wolf returns to threatened status in Minnesota, and endangered status in Wisconsin and Michigan.
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Most of us have lost track of the number of times the wolf has been taken off and put back on the Endangered Species list, but a federal judge’s ruling Friday could force the federal government to take a new and more successful approach to managing the wolf population, according to several experts.

U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington D.C. ruled that although healthy populations of wolves live in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and parts of the northern Rockies, the government can’t declare the animal recovered as long as it still occupies only a small sliver of its original range. Wolves once roamed nearly the entire continent.

“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tried to work recovery through a piecemeal approach,” said Mike Phillips, lead biologist in charge of the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction.  “That might have worked biologically, but as judges have consistently ruled, unfortunately it’s not legal.”

Phillips said there are still vast tracts of the country where wolves could thrive, for example in western Colorado and parts of New England.  As long as state wildlife managers in the Great Lakes states reduce wolf populations by allowing hunting and trapping, few wolves are likely to wander from their core habitat to colonize other places, he said.  

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Speaking at a news conference organized by the International Wolf Center, Phillips and other scientists expressed concern that the latest ruling could prompt not only more illegal killings of wolves in the three upper Midwest states, but another Congressional end run on the Endangered Species Act, as in 2011 when Congress declared the gray wolf recovered in Montana and Idaho.

Dave Mech, researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey, said the Fish and Wildlife Service’s piecemeal approach was chosen deliberately to avoid conflict.  “The wolf is much more controversial than the alligator or even the grizzly bear,” Mech said. “I’m afraid we might see the same thing as result of this decision: I can see Congress deciding to legislatively de-list the wolf in the upper Midwest just as they did in Montana and Idaho.”

On the other hand, the judge’s long and well-researched opinion could prompt a challenge to that Congressional action, according to Mike Phillips. “Congress shielded their decision from judicial review; that’s a pretty big deal, and someone might want to take that on given this judge’s ruling.”

The latest ruling means the wolf returns to threatened status in Minnesota, and endangered status in Wisconsin and Michigan. If it stands, no hunting or trapping would be allowed.

Dick Thiel, former wolf biologist with the Wisconsin DNR, said the ruling means Wisconsin will not be able to control wolves killing livestock. But Phillips suggested Wisconsin could apply for a threatened status for its wolves, as Minnesota has. That status allows for cooperative control of problem wolves.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a frequent critic of delisting efforts, said said it is encouraged by the decision. Brett Hartl, the group’s endangered species policy director, pointed to several examples of wolves moving into new and appropriate areas in recent years.  A male wolf wandered around northern California for about a year before finding a mate and raising pups about fifty miles north of the  California border.  And Hartl said recently a female moved to the north rim of the Grand Canyon.  “There are some places where wolves will get there on their own as long as the protections stay in place,” Hartl said.  

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it is disappointed with the decision.