State awaits decision on wolves

By Tim Spielman Associate Editor

Minneapolis — Following two setbacks in U.S. court, a proposal
to “delist” timber wolves – in Wisconsin and across the nation –
may be, in part, scrapped, and the process begun anew, according to
Ron Refsnider, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listing
specialist at Ft. Snelling, Minn.

A judge’s decision nearly a year ago wiped out federal
“downlisting” of wolves from endangered to threatened, nearly

As of last week, officials from the U.S. Department of Justice
still were determining whether or not to appeal the decisions of
courts in Oregon and Vermont, both of which ruled in favor of
lawsuits that similarly argued public comment was not adequately
allowed on a proposal that creates three “distinct population
segments” for wolves across the U.S. and likely would lead to state
management of the species.

“In the Midwest, we’re still convinced wolves are recovered,”
Refsnider said. “We just need a way to delist them.”

In the Midwest, Minnesota boasts a wolf population of about
2,500, while Wisconsin has a minimum of 450, and Michigan is
nearing 400 animals.

Depredation permits

In the wake of the court rulings – Oregon in January and Vermont
in August – that placed delisting on hold, states like Wisconsin
and Michigan, where wolves again were classified as endangered,
applied for permits to allow the killing of wolves that chronically
were causing livestock depredation. (In Minnesota, the practice
continued to be allowed, as it had for several years.)

But in September, the ability of states like Wisconsin and
Michigan to manage depredating wolves via lethal control ended when
a federal court ordered an injunction regarding the permits.
According to Refsnider, the injunction on the “subpermits” was
issued because the USFWS failed to seek public comment before
issuing them.

Refsnider said a comment period on the depredation permits
recently closed, and officials were evaluating the feedback. He
said the agency, based on its findings, could issue states the
permits by next spring, meaning states again could request USDA
Wildlife Services to dispatch problem wolves.

“This would give Wildlife Services clear authority to kill
problem wolves preying on domestic animals,” he said.

Before the injunction, Michigan was issued one permit, under
which two wolves were killed, Refsnider said. In Wisconsin, which
has a greater interspersion of agriculture and wolf territory,
three permits resulted in the killing of more than 20 depredating

Without the permits in place, Refsnider said the agency worries
that in places like Wisconsin, citizens might begin to exercise
their own “wolf control.”

“The real fear is that people will think neither the federal
government nor the state is controlling problem wolves, so someone
has to do it,” he said. Penalties are stiff for illegally killing
wolves, Refsnider added, and there’s the chance that the “wrong
wolves” might be killed – those that aren’t actually causing
depredation problems.

“Our target is to have (permits to kill depredating wolves)
ready by early in 2006,” he said. “We realize the calving season
will be coming up shortly.”

Refsnider called the permitting system complex, stating the
agency had to satisfy conditions laid out in both the Endangered
Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Reclassification & delisting

In 2003, the USFWS changed the listing status and protection of
wolves by creating three distinct population segments (Minnesota,
Michigan, and Wisconsin were included with several northeastern
states and the Dakotas in one DPS). Only the southwestern DPS kept
wolves’ status as endangered.

At the prompting of the Humane Society of the United States,
Defenders of Wildlife, and more than 20 other “animal protection”
groups, the lawsuit was brought before the Oregon judge, who ruled
in January 2005 that the DPS boundaries and reclassification
decisions were “arbitrary and capricious,” and therefore violated
the Endangered Species Act.

“Therefore, the service currently considers the gray wolf to
have reverted back to the ESA status that existed prior to the 2003
reclassification,” the USFWS web sites states.

Plaintiffs in the case celebrated the decision.

“It’s a great victory for wolf populations within the United
States, as well as for other endangered species that are currently
listed under the ESA and struggling to make a recovery,” said
Patricia Lane, senior attorney in the Animal Protection Litigation
Section of the HSUS, in a HSUS news release earlier this year.

Whether or not the solicitor general from the Justice Department
decides to appeal the Oregon and Vermont court decisions, “We feel
we did it right the first time,” Refsnider said. “Now we need to
figure out how to comply (with the court decisions).”

Refsnider said the agency could put delisting on the fast track
once the Justice Department makes its decision. To meet all the
federal requirements, “we only really need a year,” he said. “We’ve
done it once before.”

Refsnider said there’s “lots of data” and “lots of updating that
needs to be done.” Further, he suspects, based on the court
rulings, that the nation could be divided into a greater number of
DPSs. Or it could remain at just three.

“We’ve been talking about the full spectrum of options,” he

Different rules for several different distinct population
segments could create other problems, Refsnider said.

Depredation compensation

While federal officials in Minnesota take action to remove
problem wolves from the population, the tab for depredation – in
Minnesota, as well as in Wisconsin and Michigan – is picked up by
the states.

In Wisconsin and Michigan, it’s the departments of natural
resources; in Minnesota, it’s the Department of Agriculture.

Refsnider said it would be up to states to handle wolf
depredation and subsequent compensation. In Wisconsin, dog owners –
as well as livestock producers – may be compensated for wolf

In the meantime, federal wolf managers will prepare in the event
an appeal of the court decisions fails to materialize.

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