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Ruling sparks concerns about more illegal wolf killings

The latest ruling means the wolf returns to threatened status in Minnesota, and endangered status in Wisconsin and Michigan.

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.  

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. 

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Alan Muller on 12/25/2014 - 10:24 pm.

    A strange take on the wolf protection litigation outcome

    This is a strange story. Don’t you know that the point of the Human Society litigation was to stop LEGAL killings of wolves? That the MN DNR did not keep to prior agreements and seems to regard any species losing Federal protection as a crop to be harvested ASAP? Let us hope there will be adequate enforcement of the new decision.

  2. Submitted by Lynn Harnack on 12/26/2014 - 10:37 pm.

    Timber Wolves in Northeastern MN

    I don’t feel there is any shortage of Timbers in Northeastern MN. The DNR 4 years ago had to come in and trap timbers as we had lost so many cattle. They left with 11 timber wolves. So, why not let the hunters to the trapping instead of the DNR take care of the problem? Even after all the hunting this year we have lots of tracks around the pasture and hear them all night long. We had reports of pack of wolves chasing deer. This was seen by the hunters in the area this year. One of the hunters reported sitting in his stand and a small deer went running passed and then one right after the other 6 wolves. The poor deer didn’t have a chance. Many years ago trappers and hunters would keep the population down now I guess we leave it up to the DNR to keep it down. So hunters and trappers are willing to pay to keep the population down…..We have to pay the DNR to keep it down. Doesn’t make sense. Every time a calf is lost we loose about $800. Every animal needs a predator… What is the timber Wolves Predator? Humans?

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