USFWS announces wolf delisting in the Midwest

By Tim
Spielman

Associate Editor

Minneapolis — After years of wrangling about adequate protection
by state agencies, distinct population segments, lethal control,
and other matters, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced
this week that gray wolves will be removed from the federal
endangered species list.

State management by primary “wolf” states in the Midwest –
Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan – is slated to begin 30 days
after the delisting action is published in the federal
register.

At the same time, the USFWS announced a plan to delist the
northern Rocky Mountain population of timber wolves.

“Wolves have recovered in the western Great Lakes because
efforts to save them from extinction have been a model of
cooperation, flexibility, and hard work,” said Lynn Scarlett,
deputy secretary of the Interior department.

Still, the delisting plan may not be out of the woods. Since
protections for the endangered species (threatened in Minnesota for
more than 20 years) began to be reduced, lawsuits and subsequent
court actions have lengthened the road to delisting, despite the
fact that recovery goals were reached in the core Midwestern states
several years ago. That might again be the case, according to Ron
Refsnider, listing specialist for the USFWS in Minneapolis.

While federal officials believe that the is plan watertight,
they still believe it will be challenged once it’s published in the
federal register, which likely will occur next week, according to
Refsnider. (The 30-day “waiting” period, he said, is so that vested
interests have time to familiarize themselves with what’s about to
occur, before it actually does.)

“I think litigation is a high possibility,” Refsnider said,
adding that an injunction halting delisting is a “50-50
possibility.”

He said a federal judge, when told by litigants that the action
might significantly increase the killing of wolves, might decide to
delay implementation of state management until he or she has
reviewed the states’ plans. Each core state has had a wolf
management plan in place for several years; Wisconsin revised its
plan last year, and Michigan is in the process of some
revisions.

According to Refsnider, the recovery and subsequent removal of
gray wolves from federal protection exemplifies how the Endangered
Species Act “is supposed to work.”

“We’re getting back to normal,” he said.

According to the USFWS, “When the wolf was first listed as
endangered in the 1970s, only a few hundred wolves remained in
Minnesota. Recovery criteria outlined in the Eastern Timber Wolf
Recover Plan included assured survival of the gray wolf in
Minnesota and a population of 100 or more wolves in
Wisconsin/Michigan for a minimum of five consecutive years. The
recovery plan identified 1,250 to 1,400 as a population goal for
Minnesota. The state’s wolf population has been at or above that
level since the 1970s.

“The Wisconsin/Michigan wolf population has been above 100 since
the winter of 1993-94, achieving the latter numerical goal in the
recovery plan.”

The wolf population in the three states now totals about 4,000
(3,000 in Minnesota, 460 in Wisconsin, and 430 in Michigan). Wolves
range from northern Minnesota to northern Wisconsin to the Upper
Peninsula of Michigan, and some reports indicate some wolves may
now occupy the northern reaches of the Lower Peninsula.

“We’ve greatly exceeded recovery numbers,” USFWS Director Dale
Hall said during a conference call to announce delisting
Monday.

USFWS officials said the delisting plan includes “safeguards to
ensure (the wolf species) continues to thrive, including a
mandatory five-year monitoring period. The (USFWS) also has the
ability to immediately relist a species on an emergency basis, if
monitoring or other data show that is necessary.”

Refsnider, who’s now working on a draft of post-delisting
monitoring activities, said state surveys will continue to be the
primary source of information; surveys have been conducted annually
in Michigan and Wisconsin, every five years in Minnesota.

Data collected will include items such as wolf mortality,
enforcement actions, health information, and any significant
changes in state management, Resnider said.

Also included in Western Great Lakes wolf delisting are portions
of the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois,
Indiana, and Ohio, places where wolves may disperse, but are not
likely to establish packs.

Minnesota management

Like the states of Wisconsin and Michigan, the Minnesota plan
includes the possibility of hunting wolves as a management tool in
the future. That cannot be done for at least five years, according
Mike DonCarlos, DNR wildlife research and policy manager. At that
point, the DNR commissioner must recommend a hunt take place.

But hunting is just one aspect of Minnesota’s – and Michigan’s
and Wisconsin’s – plan for wolf management. Other aspects include
continued wolf research, and measures to deal with wolf
depredation.

It was about nine years ago when the state began preparing to
assume wolf management responsibilities, DonCarlos said. A
management plan was finalized in 2000, and since that time, the DNR
has worked to secure funding necessary to manage the species.

“We’re ready to take on the responsibilities,” DonCarlos said
this week.

Besides costs associated with wolf research, the DNR hopes to
assign three conservation officers to wolf protection. Further, the
state Department of Agriculture will need to continue to secure
funding to cover the costs of wolf depredation on livestock,
estimated to be about $200,000 annually.

In Wisconsin, the state also compensates dog owners for wolf
depredation. But the killing of dogs is more frequent in that
state, mainly because dogs are used to hunt bears.

DonCarlos said the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife
Services agency will continue to provide wolf-control services for
the state.

“Wildlife Services has been providing wolf control under federal
law … for years and years,” he said. “They typically operate under
cost-share agreements (for other activities, which will likely be
done with wolf management activities).”

Minnesota’s plan divides the state into two wolf zones – A and
B. In Zone A, where over 80 percent of the state’s wolves reside,
state protections would be nearly as strict as current protections
under the ESA. Zone B, on the southern fringe of wolf range, likely
would see a decrease in wolf numbers, according to the USFWS.
Control measure there are more liberal.

Refsnider said when states take over wolf management, penalties
for illegally killing wolves will be substantially reduced, but
still could be several thousand dollars.

But, he expects local management to be welcomed by people in
wolf country.

“We’re assuming people will be more accepting of the wolf
population if it’s managed by local folks,” he said.

Refsnider said he expects most American Indian tribes will
follow in line, to some degree, with state management plans.

“We’ll continue to ask tribes for data,” he said.

Northern Rocky Mountains

In a separate action, the USFWS this week also proposed
delisting of gray wolves in the states of Idaho, Wyoming, and
Montana, but much of what occurs in that region depends on state
action in Wyoming.

To date, Idaho and Montana have approved management plans;
Wyoming has not.

The USFWS “has determined that Wyoming’s state law and wolf
management plan are not sufficient to conserve Wyoming’s portion of
a recovered northern Rocky Mountain wolf population.”

Hall said if Wyoming’s plan is not approved before the USFWS
decides a final action on the delisting proposal, the agency would
continue to protect wolves under the ESA in the significant portion
of their range in northwest Wyoming.

The northern Rocky Mountain wolf population includes about 1,200
animals.

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