Court: Ruling on Great Lakes wolves follows government missteps

To the casual observer, the outcome should have been predictable: The same court ruling on the status of the same species.

But when it comes to wolves in the Great Lakes region, little is predictable.

In March, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit lifted federal protection of wolves in Wyoming. But in a highly anticipated ruling Tuesday, Aug. 1, the same court went the other way.

In a 3-0 ruling Tuesday, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not sufficiently considered important factors, including how loss of historical territory would affect the predator’s recovery and how removing the Great Lakes population segment from the endangered list would affect wolves in other parts of the nation.

By designating wolves in the three Great Lakes states — Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin – and six others as a distinct population segment and dropping them from the endangered list without evaluating the effect on wolves elsewhere, the USFWS created a “backdoor route” for lifting protections elsewhere, according to the opinion written by Judge Patricia Millett.

The USFWS “cannot review a single segment with blinders on,” Millett wrote.

As long as wolves are on the protected list, they cannot be killed unless human life is at risk. That means the three Great Lakes states cannot resume the hunting and trapping seasons they had when wolves were under their control.

Even after the Wyoming ruling, natural resources types in the region weren’t speculating about the possibility of delisting and, ultimately, the return of wolf hunting in the three states – possibly as early as this fall. And lawyers on both sides said the Wyoming decision wouldn’t necessarily foreshadow how the court would rule on Great Lakes wolves.

The two cases were similar “at the 50,000-foot level” because they both involved “delisting” wolves in specific regions, though there were 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 added.

Tuesday’s decision upheld that of a district judge who overruled the USFWS and its determination that wolves in the three Great Lakes states had recovered after being shot, trapped and poisoned nearly out of existence in the previous century. They’ve bounced back and now total about 3,800.

Environmental advocates cheered Tuesday’s ruling, saying wolves remain vulnerable despite their comeback in recent decades. Organizations representing farmers and ranchers, who want authority to shoot wolves preying on livestock, have long pushed to drop them from the federal list, which hunting groups also favor.

Some members of Congress have tried repeatedly to attach provisions to various bills that would “delist” wolves, return management responsibilities to the states and bar further court challenges. The efforts succeeded with Northern Rockies wolves in 2011. But the latest attempt to do likewise with Great Lakes wolves fizzled in May when congressional negotiators dropped such a proposal from a spending measure.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report

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