Push on for Congress to reverse wolf decision

Washington, D.C. — A pair of recent federal court rulings to return wolves in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wyoming to federal protection under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 have generated renewed support for congressional action to undo the court decisions and return wolves to state management authority.

U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., is leading an effort in the House of Representatives that would return those wolves to state management, and allow limited hunting, trapping, and predator control.

“Wisconsin’s wolf population has significantly recovered over the last several decades, and I am confident in our state’s ability to manage the population,” Ribble said. “I am pursuing a bipartisan legislative fix that will allow the Great Lakes states to continue the effective work they are doing in managing wolf populations without tying the hands of the Fish and Wildlife Service, or undermining the Endangered Species Act.”

Wolf populations in the three Great Lakes states are conservatively estimated at 3,700 animals, which is far beyond the recovery goal requiring delisting. The recovery goal also has been exceeded in Wyoming.

Narrow legislative focus

The legislation being drafted by Ribble would require the Secretary of the Interior to reissue the final rule published in 2011 for delisting wolves and Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota, and the 2012 rule delisting wolves in Wyoming. The legislation also would prohibit those rules from being subject to judicial review, which is similar to legislation that successfully removed wolves from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana in 2011.

Ribble’s office emphasized that this language does not modify the Endangered Species Act and does not prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from deciding to re-list the wolves in the future if it deems that the wolf population is in need of federal protection. It simply stops the ongoing litigation that has undermined previous USFWS decisions.

An aid to Ribble indicated that they would likely work with the House Natural Resources Committee to find the proper larger legislative vehicle to which to attach this legislation. 

According to Ribble spokesperson Katherine Mize, a decision has not yet been made on exactly when to introduce the bill, but lawmakers are circulating a draft. “At this point it’s already a bipartisan bill, but we’re building bipartisan support,” she said.

Bipartisan support

Current co-sponsors include U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., Dan Benishek, R-Mich., and Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo. Other supporters include Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., and John Kline, R-Minn. Republican members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation also are on board. 

“The language we are looking at would be narrow and would address the recent court decision. It would not seek to change the Endangered Species Act, but would be designed to meet the need in our region for responsible stewardship of the wolf population,” Benishek said in a statement.

Peterson, the most senior member of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, wouldn’t speculate on the prospects for this legislation, but said they’re probably better than they were in 2011 given that Republicans now control the Senate. 

Peterson told the Associated Press he’s working to line up support from other lawmakers. In a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, he also asked the USFWS to appeal the recent court decision and was confident it would be overturned.

A USFWS spokesman said no decision has been made on appealing the December ruling affecting the Great Lakes states, but said the agency did not appeal the Wyoming decision within the 60-day limit. He said the USFWS wasn’t aware of any legislation to delist wolves and couldn’t comment on it, according to the AP.

Given that this legislation strengthens the current policy of the USFWS and the Department of the Interior, and that President Obama previously signed similar legislation, no major opposition is expected from the administration.

Stakeholder support

Doug Peterson, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, said in an Associated Press story he believes the court ruling is already affecting farms and ranches, particularly smaller family farms where the loss of a cow or calf, or two, puts a big dent in incomes.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation and Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association have joined with 20 agriculture and conservation groups to support federal legislation that would invalidate the most recent judge’s rulings and return wolf management to the states.

Karen Gefvert, director of governmental relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, said if the court ruling stands, any permit held by a landowner to deal with wolf conflicts through lethal force is now void.

“Wisconsin’s law allowing landowners or farmers to shoot wolves caught attacking domestic animals on private property is now invalid,” Gefvert said.

According the Wisconsin Cattlemen’s Association, research also suggests that the presence of wolves near cattle can provoke a fear response causing stress that may result in weight loss, lower meat quality, reduced milk production, and reproductive problems.

In a Dec. 29, 2014, resolution, the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation also urged members of the Wisconsin congressional delegation and other members of Congress to enact legislation directing the USFWS to reissue its 2012 rule removing the gray wolf from the federal endangered species list in Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and to ensure that the rule is not subject to judicial review. 

“WWF does not take this action lightly,” said George Meyer, executive director. “We normally oppose legislative (political) action to intervene in professional agency conservation decision-making. However, in this case we support it because the proposed congressional action would be supporting the professional, natural resources decision-making of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the three state’s natural resource agencies.”

Meyer said the only other alternatives would be to either appeal the court decision or have the USFWS start a new delisting rule-making process.

“We do not favor taking this to the Court of Appeals, since it would take a minimum of two years and then there could still be another two-year delay with an appeal to the US Supreme Court,” Meyer said. “Even after all of that, the USFWS might lose on some technicality and we would be right where we are now except with far more wolves.”

Meyer said having the USFWS begin a new delisting rule-making process likely would take three years to complete, “and then the Humane Society of the U.S. and the Center for Biological Diversity would just file another lawsuit,” he added.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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