|Photo by Christian Mehlfuhrer on fotopedia|
The gray wolf (Canis lupus), like other apex predators, has been both feared and revered for centuries. On the one hand, it is a wild animal that poses threats to the safety of people and their domesticated livestock and pets. On the other, it is an important part of the ecosystem who has suffered the loss of much of its natural habitat due to human encroachment.
In the U.S., after being eradicated across most of its historic range as contact between wolves and humans increased, protection and conservation efforts enacted in the last several decades have helped the wolf population rebound.
I recently wrote about the status of the gray wolf in Wisconsin, where the population, thought to be zero in 1960, was estimated a year ago at about 700. This past Friday brought news from the state’s Department of Natural Resources that the total is now around 825, more than double the management goal that the state set in the late 1990s.
Most of this recovery has occurred in the past decade, during which time the gray wolf has been reclassified under the federal Endangered Species Act from endangered to threatened once in 2003, and delisted altogether from protection on two separate occasions in 2007 and 2009. In each case, though, the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been overturned by federal courts under pressure from a handful of conservation and animal rights groups.
The debate over protection of wolves in the Western Great Lakes region—Wisconsin along with Minnesota and Michigan—has not played out in the political arena to the extent that it has for the Northern Rockies wolf population. Nonetheless, it is a source of friction in Wisconsin between groups seeking to maintain federal protection, and those who feel the state should be allowed to manage its own wolf population. The latter includes, among others, farmers and hunters who are increasingly losing livestock, pets, and hunting dogs to wolf attacks, and the Wisconsin DNR, who provides compensation for these lost animals.
In April last year, the DNR petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to again consider delisting the state’s gray wolves from federal protection. And, in the second piece of news from Friday, Fish and Wildlife announced a proposed rule that would indeed lift federal protection for wolves in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.
In a press release, Rowan Gould, the Acting Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service said that “wolves in the Western Great Lakes have achieved recovery. We are taking this step because wolf populations have met recovery goals and no longer need the protection of the Endangered Species Act.”
This is good news for the DNR, who in 1999 issued the federally-approved Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan detailing how the state would tend to its own wolf population. Among other points, delegating control to Wisconsin would allow the state to issue permits for landowners to kill wolves that were a demonstrable threat to their livestock. Under their current protection, wolves can only be killed legally if they are an imminent hazard to human safety.
“By continuing to list an animal that doesn’t need to be listed as endangered, and causing these kinds of problems to increase at a time when we don’t have the ability to control those problems, that just erodes public support for wolves and the conservation of wolves,” said DNR wolf specialist Adrian Wydeven when I spoke with him last October.
The announcement of the proposed rule brought immediate condemnation from opposition groups. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, among others, removing federal protections anywhere for the gray wolf undercuts much of the progress made toward ensuring a healthy population nationally and amounts to “pandering to the minority who want to kill wolves.”
“Until we deal with the threats these animals face, including disease and killing by people, it’s premature to lift federal protections,” said Collette Adkins Giese, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney, in a press release issued Friday. “Wolf conservation in the Great Lakes region is far more complex than previously understood. All wolves in the area need federal protection while scientists resolve critical issues and threats are further reduced.”
The proposed delisting rule is subject to a 60-day period of public comments, after which the Fish and Wildlife Service will consider any new information and arguments before making a final decision on whether to delist the Western Great Lakes gray wolf.
It is unclear how long it might take for this decision to be published and for delisting to actually occur, but it could be as long as another year. In the meantime, the gray wolf maintains its endangered status, and delisting opponents seem intent on fighting to keep it that way.
Thanks to my colleague Marianne English for providing information related to this post.