Groups sue to relist wolves

Washington — With Wisconsin’s and Minnesota’s first modern-day wolf hunts in the books, and Michigan’s Legislature voting to make wolves a game animal, clearing the way for a future hunt, 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 – Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota – 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 killed 413 wolves during two seasons this fall and winter. That state’s population is estimated to be at least 3,000. Michigan has a population estimated to be over 700 wolves.

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 the state.

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 come as a surprise to Boggess. He said the groups filed a “notice of intent” to sue in October.

The current 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 had met thresholds for removal from Endangered Species Act protections.

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

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.”

Lawsuit

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

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.

Recently, the agency explained in a press release why delisting gray wolves was the right thing to do.

In a statement, the USFWS says “… gray wolves are thriving in the western Great Lakes region. When delisted, wolves totalled more than 4,400 animals in the core recovery states. … The region’s gray wolf population and distribution have exceeded recovery goals since at least 2001, and far exceed minimum population goals in each of the three states.”

In their press release, the Humane Society and its fellow plaintiffs said wolves hadn’t recovered across their historical range. It also said wolf hunts held in Minnesota and Wisconsin threatened the species, similarly to when they nearly were extirpated 100 years ago.

However, the USFWS says “unregulated killing, magnified by the use of bounties, caused the eradication of wolves throughout most of the lower 48 states.

“Regulated harvest, under a management scenario that has a goal of sustaining a healthy wolf population, is not a threat to the continued existence of wolves. We are confident state and tribal wildlife managers will continue to effectively manage healthy wolf populations.”

The HSUS complaint says the wolf has “started its recovery in the Great Lakes region.” The groups also claim the USFWS has misused a legal tool, the “distinct population segment” to sidestep ESA language the groups interpret to mean recovery of a species “throughout … a significant portion of its range.”

The USFWS says in its statement that it will continue to monitor the species during the initial state management, “and if it appears, at any time, that the status of the gray wolf may once again warrant the protections of the Endangered Species Act, the (USFWS) can initiate the normal or emergency listing process.”

A federal court judge in the District of Columbia will determine how the case proceeds, according to Laura Ragan, a USFWS wildlife biologist in Minneapolis.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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