Midwest gray wolves back in the crosshairs?

MINNEAPOLIS — Gray wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan could again find themselves in hunters’ crosshairs — possibly as soon as this fall if federal protections are removed for the predators.

A ruling is expected soon from an appeals court that recently lifted protections for wolves in Wyoming. In Congress, wolf-hunting supporters aren’t giving up even though a Minnesota representative was instrumental in killing an effort that would have allowed the three western Great Lakes states to resume wolf hunting.

Gray wolves were once hunted to the brink of extinction in most of the country, but they recovered under Endangered Species Act protections and reintroduction programs. They now number over 5,500 in the lower 48 states, including nearly 3,800 in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has repeatedly tried to remove wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan states from the endangered species list, but courts have stymied those efforts. Now, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is looking at the issue. The same appeals court in March took wolves off the list in Wyoming.

Wisconsin and Minnesota each held three wolf seasons before a federal judge put their wolves back on the list in December 2014. Michigan held one.

Backed by farm groups upset about depredation on livestock, and hunters who would like the chance to bag a wolf, lawmakers from the region have tried to attach riders to various bills in Congress that would “delist” wolves, return management responsibilities to the states and bar further court challenges. The latest effort failed when congressional negotiators dropped that language from a $1.1 trillion spending bill that President Donald Trump signed Friday.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents an urban-suburban district in the Twin Cities, took credit, putting her at odds with rural lawmakers from the Upper Midwest, including Minnesota Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson.

Peterson said he anticipates `”several other opportunities” to pass the rider.

But if the appeals court rules as it did in the Wyoming case, there may be no need.

Lawyers on both sides said the Wyoming decision doesn’t necessarily foreshadow how the court will rule next.

The two cases are similar “at the 50,000 foot level” because they both involve “delisting” wolves in specific regions, though there are differences in the details, said James Lister, who argued the Great Lakes case for pro-hunting groups, including the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance Foundation and the National Rifle Association.

Ralph Henry, litigation director for The Humane Society of the United States, who argued the opposite side, stressed the differences. The Wyoming case hinged on whether that state’s management plan provided adequate protections, he said. The Great Lakes case focused on the process the U.S. government used for taking the three states’ wolves off the list when the animals haven’t spread enough to repopulate other states in their former range, he said.

Whether Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan could hold wolf seasons this fall would depend in part on how soon the court rules.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources can’t make plans unless it’s certain wolves will be coming off the list, said Dan Stark, the agency’s large carnivore specialist. It would take time to publish the rules and set up a permit lottery, he said, but it might be possible to speed the process.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources spokesman Jim Dick declined to speculate.

“State law requires us to hold a harvest season if wolf management is returned to the states,” he said. “We are prepared to respond to a change in listing status, if and when it happens, whether it comes through congressional action or through a court ruling.”

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law in December authorizing wolf hunting if Congress or the courts permit, but the state’s Natural Resources Commission has the final say.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Brian Roell said his agency would need to know by sometime in June to make it work.

“When you combine all the nuances it’s not as simple as, ‘OK, they’re off the list, let’s have a hunting season,”’ he said.

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