Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials are asking the federal government to remove the gray wolf from the list of endangered and threatened species, saying the state's wolf population has fully recovered and is beginning to cause more conflicts.
The issue has been in and out of the courts in recent years. The federal government removed the wolf from its endangered list a year ago, but environmental an animal-protection groups sued to have the wolf put back on the list.
As part of a settlement the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached with the groups last summer, wolves were put back on the list, at least temporarily.
The federal government hasn't moved to change anything since then, so Minnesota officials decided to send the request to the Department of the Interior to urge them to begin the process of removing the wolf from the list again.
"The Endangered Species Act has run its course for gray wolves in Minnesota. They've fully recovered, and the population is thriving," said Dan Stark, wolf specialist for the DNR. "We think it's time to recognize that."
Officials estimate the Minnesota gray wolf population is about 3,000, and the regional population in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan is about 4,000.
On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., also asked the U.S. Department of the Interior to delist Michigan gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act.
Stark said there have been more conflicts between wolves and humans in recent years, including incidents in which livestock and dogs were killed by wolves.
If the federal government removes wolves from the threatened species list in Minnesota, the state would be able to manage its wolf population with fewer restrictions and allow landowners to kill a wolf that is causing problems.
"They can kind of be empowered to take action on their own and address some of the conflicts, and not rely on somebody to come out there and do it for them," Stark said, adding that delisting the wolf in 2007 only resulted in 10 wolves being killed that wouldn't have been killed under the Endangered Species Act.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture also supports the petition to have the wolf delisted. The department has received more than 1,000 claims of livestock loss to wolves since 1998.
However, at least one animal advocacy group is concerned about Minnesota's petition to remove the wolf from federal protection. Born Free USA, a California-based group involved in the lawsuit to keep the wolf on the endangered list, believes it might be too soon to lift protections for the wolf.
"We certainly have nothing against animals coming off to prove that the (Endangered Species Act) has worked, but we don't want to rush it and potentially roll back any progress, or hurt the recovery of other populations," said Monica Engebretson, senior program associate at Born Free.
While Minnesota officials may think the wolf population in their state is robust enough to be taken off the list, Engebretson said it's possible a healthy wolf population in the Great Lakes region could help restore the wolf population in the northeastern U.S.
"Populations interact and migrate back and forth," she said. "They don't necessarily maintain these rigid walls."
The Minnesota DNR has asked federal officials to respond to the request within 90 days. If officials decided to remove the wolf from the list, a comment period would begin.