USFWS seeks to delist wolves across Lower 48
St. Paul — Federal officials are declaring victory in their four-decade campaign to rescue the gray wolf, a predator the government once considered a nuisance and tried to exterminate.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last Friday proposed removing the remaining federal protections for the animals as an endangered species across the Lower 48 states. The exception would be in the southwestern U.S., where the recovery effort for Mexican gray wolves is ongoing.
Dan Ashe, USFWS director, said wolves can thrive and expand their territory without federal protection.
“Taking this step fulfills the commitment we’ve made to the American people – to set biologically sound recovery goals and return wolves to state management when those goals have been met and threats to the species’ future have been addressed,” he said.
The USFWS will begin a 90-day public comment period on the proposals, and agency officials said they would make a final decision next year.
The proposal doesn’t affect wolves in Minnesota, where the species has been under state management since early last year.
“(The proposal) wouldn’t have any specific impact on Minnesota,” said Ed Boggess, director of the DNR Fish and Wildlife Division.
Boggess noted the federal lawsuit challenging delisting in Minnesota and other states still is ongoing.
At one time, wolves occupied much of North America. But trapping, poisoning, and aerial shooting encouraged by federal bounties left just one small remnant, in northern Minnesota, by the time they were placed on the protected list in 1974.
More than 6,100 wolves have now spread across portions of 10 states, primarily in the Northern Rockies and the western Great Lakes regions. But they have yet to return to vast additional territory that researchers say has suitable habitat and abundant prey, including parts of the Pacific Northwest, the southern Rocky Mountains, upstate New York, and New England.
Environmental groups say wolves could make their way to those places, but only if legal protections remain to prevent them from being shot. Removing them now would put wolves “at serious risk for ever achieving natural recovery,” said Diane Bentivegna of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition.
Ashe, though, said it’s unrealistic to think wolves can return to all or even most of their former range, even if scientifically feasible.
“Science is an important part of this decision, but really the key is the policy question of when is a species recovered,” he said. “Does the wolf have to occupy all the habitat that is available to it in order for it to be recovered? Our answer to that question is no.”
David Mech, a wolf expert and senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul, said wolves already occupy about 80 percent of the territory where people are likely to tolerate them.
The Center for Biological Diversity vowed to challenge the government in court if it takes the animals off the endangered list.
The Humane Society of the United States, which has filed a lawsuit challenging the removal of protections from Great Lakes wolves, is reviewing the government’s latest proposal, spokesman Kaitlin Sanderson said.
Ashe said the plan had been reviewed by top administration officials, including new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. But he dismissed any claims of interference and said the work that went into the plan was exclusively that of the Fish and Wildlife Service.
The AP contributed to this report