Wolves across the Great Lakes region are back under full protection of the federal Endangered Species Act as a result of a ruling by a federal judge Friday in Washington.
Judge Beryl A. Howell sided with animal rights groups in a 111-page decision stating the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went too far in removing federal protections for wolves in nine Great Lakes states in 2012.
The judge ruled that wolves in the Great Lakes states be immediately placed under the protections of the government’s 1978 ruling to protect the animals, which had been hunted, trapped and harassed to near extinction at the time.
By then only a few hundred wolves remained in the continental United States, mostly in and around Minnesota’s Superior National Forest.
Under federal protections for three decades, wolf numbers rebounded in Minnesota, with the animals spreading into Wisconsin and Michigan. State and federal wildlife managers agreed that, by 2012, wolves had recovered well beyond expectations in the region, leading the Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the Great Lakes region a “distinct population’’ of gray wolf that had “recovered’’ under the terms of the Endangered Species Act.
The move was praised by sporting and farming groups that wanted to thin wolf population numbers, and Minnesota and Wisconsin state resource agencies immediately instituted hunting and trapping seasons in 2012. Seasons were held again in 2013, and this year.
But the Humane Society of the United States filed suit, saying the animal hadn’t fully recovered in all areas they once roamed, and that the Fish and Wildlife Service was wrongly carving out a small, successful population from vast areas where no wolves exist.
In Friday’s ruling, the judge granted summary judgment for the plaintiffs and ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “Final Rule” that the 2012 delisting is immediately vacated and the 1978 protections are immediately reinstated.
The move appears to leave Minnesota wolves officially “threatened,’’ with Wisconsin and Michigan wolves listed as “endangered.” The distinction allows a limited culling of wolves in Minnesota through targeted trapping, but no sport hunting or trapping seasons.
“The most important part of this decision is that it agrees wolf recovery needs to happen in more than just a few, core populations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan before we can say they are recovered,” said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in Minnesota.
She said state resource agency action to immediately reinstate hunting and trapping seasons showed “that they can’t be trusted to manage these animals. The zeal they had to start killing wolves again showed the kind of wolf hatred that got them (wolves) on the endangered list in the first place really hasn’t gone away.”
If the ruling is not appealed and overturned in court it likely would take years for the Fish and Wildlife Service to resubmit a plan to de-list Great Lakes wolves yet again.
A total of 272 wolves were shot and trapped during limited seasons in Minnesota this year, more than the DNR’s target harvest of 250.
In addition, wolves near farms where livestock have been killed are targeted by federal trappers. And wolves seen near livestock can be shot by landowners in some areas.
Tom Landwehr, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources commissioner, said the agency has not yet seen the judge’s decision.
“We’ll have to take a look at it with our attorneys on Monday and see where we stand,” Landwehr said. “But if it does go back to listed, that has immediate implications… Our hunting seasons are over but we still have management options for landowners (to shoot wolves) that would have to end if they are listed again.”
Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation at The Humane Society of the United States, said the judge ruled the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to explain how the “virtually unregulated” killing of wolves in Minnesota and Wisconsin does not constitute a continued threat to the species.
The judge was especially critical of Minnesota’s wolf management plan that allows unchecked shooting of wolves in agricultural areas of the state. Lovvorn agreed.
“In the short time since federal protections have been removed, trophy hunters and trappers have killed more than 1,500 Great Lakes wolves” and dramatically reduced wolf numbers, Lovvorn said in a statement. “We are pleased that the court has recognized that the basis for the delisting decision was flawed, and would stop wolf recovery in its tracks.”
The same court in September ruled that Wyoming wolves should still be under federal protections.
A survey last winter showed Minnesota has about 2,423 wolves in 470 packs, mostly across the northern one-third of the state. In Wisconsin, last winter’s estimate showed about 670 wolves in the state. Those surveys were before this year’s hunting and trapping seasons.