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Is the Endangered Species Act’s protection of gray wolves too broad for Minnesota?

grey wolf
As of 2018, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates there are over 2,600 gray wolves in the state.

At its low point in the 1950s, Minnesota’s gray wolf population was estimated to be just 400 animals. As of 2018, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates there are over 2,600 gray wolves in the state.

That recovery is a success story for the Endangered Species Act, a law signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973 that implemented federal protections for a variety of species throughout the U.S.

But people living in areas where wolf populations have recovered aren’t necessarily celebrating that success. As wolf populations increase, so does wolf predation, a concern when the animals target livestock or pets.

Those concerns recently prompted DFL Rep. Collin Peterson and GOP Rep. Pete Stauber, whose respective Seventh and Eighth congressional districts cover most of the wolf range in northern Minnesota, to introduce the Gray Wolf State Management Act of 2019. The one-page bill would remove federal protection from gray wolves in the Great Lakes region of the U.S., allowing states there to set their own wolf policies, including allowing for hunts. That would restore policy from 2011 to 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted Great Lakes gray wolves, removing endangered species protections. During that time, Minnesota had three recreational hunting seasons.

But a federal court ruled Fish and Wildlife’s action violated the Endangered Species Act since in that law there was no provision for selectively delisting a species in a specific region. In the wake of that ruling, wolves were restored to federal protection and no hunts have been conducted.

Peterson’s bill would override that ruling, requiring the interior secretary to re-issue the rule allowing states to manage their wolf populations. “It’s ridiculous that a single judge sitting a thousand miles away from the nearest gray wolf can undermine an entire federal agency and science-driven population surveys,” he argues.

Removing protections

In 1974, one year after the Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Nixon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified gray wolves as an endangered species throughout the country except in Minnesota, where populations were more stable and wolves were classified as threatened.

The intricacies of these designations, as they relate to different states, have been litigated for the last two decades. But the recent fight over gray wolves’ status began in 2011, when Fish and Wildlife delisted gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes from the Endangered Species Act.

Rep. Collin Peterson
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Rep. Collin Peterson
“Gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes are recovered and no longer warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act,” acting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Rowan Gould said in a statement at the time.

From 2011 to 2014, the population was managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. During that time, Minnesota held three recreational hunts.

But in 2014, the Federal Court of Appeals reversed the administration’s rule change, removing local control and again classifying gray wolves in Minnesota as protected. “When a species is already listed, the service cannot review a single segment with blinders on, ignoring the continuing status of the species’ remnant,” the court’s ruling reads. In other words, gray wolves’ recovery must be looked at as a whole when delisting the species, not just in the Great Lakes region.

Peterson’s bill would buck that ruling and reinstate the 2011 rule change. The bill’s language would require the Secretary of the Interior to reissue the 2011 Fish and Wildlife rule change on gray wolves.

For Stauber, the move is driven by constituent concerns. “A cow is easily worth thousands of dollars, so it is incredibly problematic that our farmers have no legal avenue to protect their livestock should a gray wolf attack,” said Kelsey Mix, Stauber’s Communication’s Director. Under Federal law, wolves can only be killed in defense of a human life. Only government officials are authorized to kill wolves if pets or livestock are threatened, attacked, or killed.

“Our staff has been in contact with a number of concerned constituents, including a rancher living in Pine County who lost 5 calves to gray wolves in recent months.”

The International Wolf Center, which provides educational information about wolf populations, compiled USDA-Wildlife Services data from 1979 to 2017. From about 70 verified complaints annually over the last five years, predation of animals by gray wolves has remained steady. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture provides compensation for animals killed by wolves.

MinnPost photo by Brian Halliday
Pete Stauber
Peterson’s bill is not the only push to change the species listing. Like in years past, Fish and Wildlife under the Trump administration is again trying to delist gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act. But now, instead of arguing that they need to delist a specific segment, the agency is arguing that gray wolves have recovered entirely.

“We propose to list or delist, open a public comment period, gather all available information about the species, and then publish a final rule with our decision, based on the best available science,” Georgia Parham, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told MinnPost.

“We have proposed to delist the gray wolf in the lower 48 states, and have held a public hearing and comment period, but we have not yet a made a final decision on delisting.”

Defending the Endangered Species Act

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service received over 1.8 million comments opposing the proposal. And in May, more than 100 scientists sent a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, asking him to rescind the proposed rule change.

One group opposed to delisting the wolf is the Center for Biological Diversity. Collette Adkins, Carnivore Conservation Director and Senior Attorney for the group, has pledged to challenge delisting measures in court in order to maintain current wolf protections.

“The courts have repeatedly slammed the Fish and Wildlife Service for prematurely removing wolf protections, but the agency has now come back with its most egregious scheme yet,” said Adkins. “Once again, we’ll take it to the courts and do everything we can to stop this illegal effort to kill wolf protections.”

Adkins is similarly opposed to the Gray Wolf State Management Act. “Rep. Peterson’s bill is one of many Republican led attacks on the Endangered Species Act,” she said. “It is unlikely to be successful, as public support for the ESA and wolves remains strong.”

Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents Minnesota’s Fourth District covering St. Paul and the eastern metro, also opposes here colleague’s bill. “If and when the species is delisted, that decision needs to be driven by scientists and other key stakeholders and done in a way that will protect and enhance that balance nationally,” McCollum said.

“It is not Congress’ role to interfere in the process of delisting species – rather, scientific evidence should guide those decisions.”

‘The gray wolf will thrive’

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which would manage the wolf’s population should that authority be placed again into state control, maintains that the gray wolf will thrive whether or not it is delisted as a threatened species in Minnesota.

“Changes in the legal status of wolves in Minnesota are not expected to have a significant influence on the wolf population in Minnesota. Wolves will remain protected under state law. There are not currently any threats that are reason for concern,” said Dan Stark, Large Carnivore Specialist at the Minnesota DNR.

As for whether or not recreational hunts would return, the answer is unclear. In April, the Minnesota state House voted to ban recreational hunts no matter the gray wolf’s listing, but that bill failed in the Senate.

“I think we need to recognize first that wolf recovery has been wildly successful and celebrate the fact that the future of the wolf in MN is secure,” said Stark. “Although a wolf season could be a possibility in the future it is separate from whether the wolf population in Minnesota has recovered.”

The DNR adopted a state plan in anticipation that the wolves would be delisted in the early 2000s, and Stark said they are currently in the process of updating that plan over the next 18 to 24 months.

“Minnesota’s wolf population has exceeded the thresholds considered recovered under the ESA for several decades and will continue to thrive even when ESA protections are removed.”

In 2018, Peterson echoed this sentiment and said that despite past disagreements, he believes that a return to state management by the DNR is the way to proceed.

“I have very seldom got along with the DNR in Minnesota. This is one time where they were doing the right thing,” Peterson said on the House floor in 2018. “They did a good job, and the court stopped them.

“We got a lot of extra wolves. And we will send them to your district and we’ll let them eat your fancy little dogs and we’ll see how long that goes before your constituents demand that you do something about it.”

Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by joe smith on 10/08/2019 - 11:57 am.

    In 1998 the wolf population was estimated at 2,400+, now 20 years later the wolf population is estimated at 2,600+, interesting? So in the 1950’s the wolf population was estimated at 750 and 40 years later the population increased by around 2,000 but in 20 years from 98 to 2018 it increased by 200, again, interesting? As a DNR guy out of Grand Rapids told me 10 years ago “wolf population is what our leaders tell us it is”. He believed wolf population was closer to 5,000 than 2,500 a decade ago.

    As long as “Green groups” give heavily to Democrats to keep wolves protected, the population will continue to somehow miraculously stay stable. Friends of the wolf groups spend big money to keep the wolves from reproducing I guess.

    Let Minnesota manage its wolf population the best way for Minnesotans not how the Sierra Club or a wolf group from Chicago thinks we should. I have yet to talk to a Game Warden or DNR guy up here on the Range that is against wolf population control.

    • Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 10/13/2019 - 01:51 pm.

      “…..a guy out of Grand Rapids told me 10 years ago” a typical Trumpian non-verifiable statement Joe…no credibility again.

      • Submitted by joe smith on 10/15/2019 - 06:54 pm.

        Dennis, not any guy, a DNR officer. We actually talk to folks who work in the field up here on the Range. Only saying what he told me, really don’t need to validate it with you.

  2. Submitted by Ralph Wittcoff on 10/08/2019 - 01:28 pm.

    The Minnesota DNR has done such a great job of protecting our natural resources from sulfide mining, I’m sure they will do equally well with the wolves. Seriously, the only protection the DNR offers is for foreign corporations and big game trophy hunters.

  3. Submitted by David Lundeen on 10/08/2019 - 02:48 pm.

    Another example of the Right wanting States rights only when it benefits a narrow constituency. But apparently California had no state right when it comes to auto emissions.

    • Submitted by Gerry Anderson on 10/27/2019 - 09:06 am.

      The purpose of the Federal Government is to regulate things that happen to all states. MN wolf population is a state issue not a federal issue.
      California and emissions is outside of their wheelhouse unless they can prove all the airborne emissions stay in the state.

      Let the professionals locally have the control they need to do the management they need to. Often it’s in a micro situation, yet they have no power.

      I do believe that wolves play an important part of the ecosystem but they are just one part. I would also love to see moose make a comeback but 90% of calves are killed in their first year, a vast majority by wolves.

      When you tie the hands of wildlife management professionals, it will have consequences.

  4. Submitted by Andy Briebart on 10/08/2019 - 03:01 pm.

    If the goal is to to get them back to manageable levels, at some point they come off the endangered list.

    Sounds like a success story to me.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/09/2019 - 07:13 am.

      No, I would say the goal is to prevent the short sighted from once again exterminating them, as is their desire. Until such folks give up such desires, the wolf will ALWAYS be threatened with extinction, and as such, will require constant protection. Something of an irony, of course, but the truth of the matter.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/09/2019 - 09:02 am.

      The assumption that the number of wolves in the state has become “un-manageable” is a false claim. We are nowhere near confronting any kind of wolf crises.

      • Submitted by Gerry Anderson on 10/27/2019 - 09:10 am.

        Do you live in wolf country? I grew up there and have property just a bit north of Virginia. We have seen wolves, broad daylight, within a few hundred yards of where my pets and grandkids are playing. Just in the past few years. Yes there are more as they are expanding their territory.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/08/2019 - 08:18 pm.

    I still have a save the wolf sign in my front yard. It will remain there as the wolf has really not been saved long term. If delisted numbers will dwindle. They it would be resisted if the endangered species act is still honored. Increasingly the opponents want it to go away. And will do whatever manipulation of reality to make it so, see a wolf in the wild and one changes their mind about the beautiful keystone creature. Just read up on how reintroduction of the wolf saved Yellowstone. Here are my key take always….Adkins is similarly opposed to the Gray Wolf State Management Act. “Rep. Peterson’s bill is one of many Republican led attacks on the Endangered Species Act,” she said. “It is unlikely to be successful, as public support for the ESA and wolves remains strong.”

    Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents Minnesota’s Fourth District covering St. Paul and the eastern metro, also opposes here colleague’s bill. “If and when the species is delisted, that decision needs to be driven by scientists and other key stakeholders and done in a way that will protect and enhance that balance nationally,” McCollum said.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 10/09/2019 - 09:14 am.

      Joe, if the wolf population is 10,000 does the sign come down? 20,000? 30,000? Just wondering when the state can manage the wolf in your estimation. Because right now folks who work as Game Wardens and DNR say it needs to be done.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/09/2019 - 10:13 am.

        I would imagine the sign might come down when folks in wolf country stop seeking the total eradication of wolves. Any progress on that front to report Mr. Smith? How do you plan to convince us the sentiment is true THIS time, when there are still those who declare “shoot ’em in the guts and let ’em run” should be the only “management” utilized?

        • Submitted by joe smith on 10/09/2019 - 05:29 pm.

          The people who would shoot wolves and let them die will do that with or without protection. I’m talking about a State management program which includes hunting and trapping. Your assumption that there are hundreds of folks roaming the woods randomly killing wolves is a totally false. BTW I’ve been deer/grouse hunting for 6 decades up here on the Range and I’ve had a handful of opportunities to shoot a wolf.. See their tracks everyday of deer season but not the wolf. So your worry about renegade shooters decimating the population won’t happen.

          • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/10/2019 - 09:28 am.

            Clearly you ddon’t frequent “sportsmen’s” forums (believe me, I use that term only as an identifier, NOT a description), where plenty of folks brag of their exploits. Sadly, I like most things conservative, it appears most of the folks who claim some semblance of rationality have their heads in the sand with regards to the the true impact of their ideology.

            • Submitted by joe smith on 10/10/2019 - 10:17 am.

              Matt, please direct me to those sportsman forums where folks brag about killing wolves. I have not been able to find one . Thank you.

              • Submitted by David Lundeen on 10/10/2019 - 12:58 pm.

                Not many intelligent people would brag about killing a federally protected animal on an internet forum.

              • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/10/2019 - 10:12 pm.

                Hmm let’s see, any of the usual magazine’s stories on wolves, any Strib outdoors story (whether it’s about wolves or not), In-Depth outdoors has some decent examples…seems you didn’t look too hard (as it was my first stop…)

      • Submitted by David Lundeen on 10/10/2019 - 12:57 pm.

        NE Minnesota can’t support 30,000 wolves. This is not an argument.

  6. Submitted by thomas murphy on 10/09/2019 - 06:20 am.

    The deprivation of cattle went up when Klobuchar and Franklin opened up our public land for cattle grazing.
    Keep your cows off our public lands.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/09/2019 - 09:19 am.

    As long as we have people who carry instinctive fear and hostility towards wolves around in their hearts and heads, we cannot merely “trust” that any agency, State or Federal will protect a species that needs protection.

    The problem with the hunting seasons wasn’t so much the number of wolves “harvested” it’s the fact that the impact on wolf packs is dramatically different than such killing has on “herds” like deer. Hunters have no way of knowing which wolf they’re killing in the pack, and decades of research have shown that if you kill the wrong wolf you disrupt the pack and cause more problems than you resolve.

    Livestock predation is rarely as clear-cut as farmers and would-be wolf hunters like to pretend. With so much money at stake it’s not unheard of for a farmer to try cash-in and reduce their losses with a wolf kill claim. And it can be hard to determine how a dead calf actually died, and whether or not wolves or some other animals chomped on the carcass. Farmers always that it’s too difficult to prove a wolf kill and collect, and those who certify wolf kills claim that farmers are assuming wolf kills that weren’t wolf kills.

    There are also better and worse ways of protecting cattle. There are dog breeds that are incredibly effective at protecting livestock, deploying such dogs is probably a better strategy than killing wolves, and it’s a lot less expensive.

  8. Submitted by Mike Ruzich on 10/11/2019 - 08:45 am.

    As a resident of the rural North, my concern is not with wolves, but with those who would hunt and trap them. I hunt deer, and it is tough enough during deer season being a dog owner. I know, keep them under control… They wear orange, bells, and electric collars whenever out during deer season. When we had wolf season up here, it was a different matter, as traps, snares in particular are indiscriminate with what they catch.

    Cable cutters were an extra tool carried all the time in the woods during wolf hunting/trapping seasons. The constant fear of trappers not removing all their snares (they are inexpensive) post season was also present.

    Wolves are a part of what living in Northern MN is about. The wolf population ebbs and flows with the deer population. If you have a lot of deer up here in the North, you will find a larger wolf population. Want fewer wolves? Then have fewer deer.

  9. Submitted by Dr Rin Porter on 10/13/2019 - 08:07 am.

    Collin Peterson has shown us once again ignorant he is about the natural world, specifically wolves and other wildlife. These animals are essential to a healthy ecosystem. Peterson acts like wolves are just another “thing” to be exploited, killed, or “managed” as a commodity like the cows he claims to want to protect. No. Wolf populations manage themselves and just need humans to leave them alone.They evolved to fill a vital niche in nature and are meant to occupy that niche now. No farms belong in wolf habitat. The farms should either be moved or get guard animals to protect their helpless, invasive species from predation by the native animals that live in Minnesota.

    • Submitted by joe smith on 10/15/2019 - 06:57 pm.

      Please show me a credible study done where wolves don’t breed, expand their range and manage themselves. Thank you

      • Submitted by Gerry Anderson on 10/27/2019 - 10:28 am.

        There are none. Wolves only predator is man. They also feed on moose, especially calf’s, accounting for 90% mortality. They are also smart and will take the easy kill whenever they can. Livestock. Pets.

        You take the only predator out of any system, things become unbalanced. Like now.

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