Groups again sue to relist timber wolves

Washington — With Wisconsin’s and Minnesota’s first modern-day wolf hunts in the books, animals rights groups wasted no time in filing a federal lawsuit, disputing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to remove the species in the Great Lakes region from the endangered species list, an action undertaken just over a year ago.

On Feb. 12, the Humane Society of the United States and three other groups sued the USFWS over the decision, which the groups state in a press release, “threatens the fragile remnants of the gray wolf population by confining wolves to a small area in the Great Lakes region – where state wildlife managers have rushed forward with reckless killing programs that threaten wolves with the very same practices that pushed them to the brink of extinction in the first place.”

Wisconsin hunters and trappers registered 117 wolves in about two months. Wisconsin’s minimum wolf count was at about 840 wolves last April, but wildlife biologists acknowledge that the actual number could be closer to 1,500. Minnesota hunters and trappers harvested 413 wolves during two seasons. That state’s population is an estimated to be at least 3,000 wolves. Michigan’s Legislature recently made wolves a game animal, clearing the way for a future hunt.

Wisconsin also saw an in-state legal challenge to the use of dogs in hunting wolves. That challenge failed in early January when Dane County Circuit Court Judge Peter Anderson ruled that dogs could be used to hunt wolves in Wisconsin.

In Minnesota, there was a local effort under way to derail the wolf season. First a state appeals court and later the state supreme court denied a request for a preliminary injunction by the Center for Biological Diversity and Howling for Wolves, according to Ed Boggess, the Minnesota DNR’s Fish and Wildlife Division director.

However, Boggess said, a portion of the lawsuit remains in the legal pipeline.

“There’s still the underlying challenge to our rule-making process,” he said.

Opponents to a wolf season in Michigan are attempting to gather more than 250,000 signatures to get the issue placed on a ballot referendum.

The announcement by the Humane Society, along with Born Free USA, Help Our Wolves Live, and Friends of Animals and Their Environment, didn’t some as a surprise to Boggess. He said the groups filed a “notice of intent” to sue in October.

This lawsuit continues a long line of suits regarding Midwest gray wolves that began about a decade ago; it’s the fourth suit brought by the HSUS.

With last year’s delisting, however, all three states met thresholds for removal from Endangered Species Act protections in those states.

However, says Linda Hatfield, executive director of HOWL, “Wolf populations are just at the threshold of rebounding in many areas across the Great Lakes region. The recent delisting has taken wolves back to the old days, days before the ESA, the days of state-sponsored bounty payments to hunters and trappers that were intended to eliminate wolves from the landscape.”

According to the HSUS press release, the case was filed in federal district court for the District of Columbia.

The HSUS is a national organization whose agenda can be viewed at www.humanesociety.org. Born Free USA is a national group active in “animal welfare.” Both Help Our Wolves Live and Friends of Animals and

Their Environment are Minnesota-based nonprofit groups, both of which have about 200 members, according to the HSUS press release.

Wisconsin response

Wisconsin DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp said her agency disagrees with this attempt to put wolves back on the endangered species list.

“We intend to continue managing wolves in ways that work for Wisconsin, socially and biologically,” Stepp said in a press release. “But to do so, management authority needs to remain in the hands of the state. We must maintain the authority to employ tools, like a wolf hunt, when populations and depredations peak as they have this year.”

Great Lakes wolves were delisted in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota last January. At that time, Stepp said Wisconsin wolf numbers were eight times the federal delisting goals.

“We are successfully out of wolf recovery mode and into wolf management mode,” she said. “With this transition came the transfer of management authority from the federal government to the states.”
She said the HSUS suit could shut down the state’s wolf season and limit responses to livestock depredation.

Kurt Thiede, of the Wisconsin DNR, said it’s disappointing to see wolf delisting go back to court again. He said if the wildlife groups win, killing of problem wolves would become more difficult, and it would block the state going ahead with its management plan that aims to reduce the wolf population, “so that would take away hunting and trapping to manage the population.”

“As the manager, the state is committed to fostering a healthy wolf population while also maintaining social tolerance,” Stepp said. “We believe it is not in the best interest of the state’s citizens nor the wolves to relist a recovered species under the Endangered Species Act.”

Lawsuit

The lawsuit was filed against the USFWS and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of the Interior. HSUS says said the USFWS’s decision to take wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan off the endangered list threatens wolf recovery.

“In the short time since federal protections have been removed, trophy hunters and trappers have killed hundreds of Great Lakes wolves under hostile state management programs that encourage dramatic reductions in wolf populations,” Jonathan Lovvorn, chief counsel for animal protection litigation at the HSUS, said in a statement. “This decision rolls back the only line of defense for wolf populations, and paves the way for the same state-sponsored eradication policies that pushed this species to the brink of extinction in the first place.”

USFWS spokeswoman Georgia Parham said she couldn’t comment on the lawsuit, but the agency took wolves off the endangered list because the population had recovered, and followed the law in doing so.

Michigan is expected to make a decision on wolf hunting this spring. Officials say if a hunt is approved, it likely will be limited to parts of the sparsely populated Upper Peninsula where wolves have preyed on livestock and pets.

“Management of wolves by state experts is best for the Michigan wolf population and for citizens”’ said Ed Golder, spokesman for the Michigan DNR. “Toward that end, the state continues to implement Michigan’s well-regarded wolf plan, which went into effect after wolves last year were removed from the federal endangered species list.”

Wolves recovered to more than 5,000 combined in the western Great Lakes and northern Rocky Mountain states by the time the USFWS took them off the list in those areas last January. That action followed several years of court battles and returned wolf management to the states.

The latest lawsuit calls the USFWS’s decision to take wolves off the list “biologically reckless” and contrary to the Endangered Species Act. It says “the existing regulatory mechanisms in the Great Lakes region are anything but adequate,” and that allowing hunting and trapping in the western Great Lakes when wolves don’t exist in 95 percent of their former range runs counter to the goals of the act.

Environmentalists also have gone to court to try to restore federal protections for wolves in Wyoming.

The suit aims to halt wolf seasons in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Some animal rights groups don’t like that Minnesota and Wisconsin went ahead with wolf seasons less than a year after the animal came off the federal endangered species list. HSUS Wisconsin Director Alyson Bodai said hunting adds to other threats wolves face.

Bodai said the Endangered Species Act requires that species recover their numbers across their traditional range before delisting. She said wolves have not come back in several other states.

The USFWS has 60 days to formally respond to the delisting lawsuit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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