At a meeting in Grand Rapids on Tuesday, support was strong for removing endangered species protections for wolves in Minnesota.
Nearly 200 people attended the meeting, which was organized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to learn more about the latest plan to delist wolves.
For the third time, the federal government is trying to remove gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region from the Endangered Species List. The last two times, conservation groups challenged the idea in court, and won.
For wolves living in the Rockies, political pressure has brought an end to their special protections. In April, Congress inserted wording in a budget bill to remove most of them from the list.
Grand Rapids veterinarian John Howe said he gets panicky calls all the time about wolf attacks on pets.
"We had a lady call with an 84-pound yellow lab sitting on her deck in the middle of the day, and her 5-year-old son sitting on a tractor 50 feet away," Howe said. "The wolves killed the dog in a matter of seconds, drug it off in the woods. And I'm thinking, what if the 5-year-old was sitting there petting the dog when this happened?"
Many of those in attendance were ranchers who wanted to know whether they'd still be able to get help when wolves kill their livestock.
Once wolves are removed from federal protection, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will manage them. The DNR plans to continue a federal program that traps and kills problem wolves, but no one is sure where the money will come from.
The DNR also plans to ease restrictions on where and when people can kill wolves to protect pets and livestock. But there would be no hunting season for at least five years.
Perhaps the only person in the audience who opposed delisting the wolf was Sandra Skinaway, a member of the Sandy Lake Band of Mississippi Chippewa.
"We were taught that the wolf and the original man were together. We had our lands taken just like the wolf," Skinaway said. "The populations may be growing, but in the end it's a natural selection, you know how they manage their own populations."
In addition to removing endangered species protections for the gray wolf population in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will study a newly recognized species — the eastern timber wolf.
Until recently, the eastern timber wolf had been classified as a subspecies of the gray wolf. The Fish and Wildlife Service scientist who wrote the delisting plan, Laura Ragan, explained that recent studies suggest they may be separate species.
"Techniques for looking at genetics of species — those techniques have become amazing, the types of detail they can look at now regarding genetics, these are not techniques that we had five years ago," she said.
Ragan said her agency will review how many eastern wolves there are and where they live, and then will determine whether eastern wolves should be listed as endangered. The answer will come at the same time the gray wolf is removed from the list.
Conservation groups see this new wrinkle as a reason to slow down the delisting process. Ralph Henry, an attorney with the Humane Society of the United States, said the designation of eastern wolves as a separate species raises a lot of questions: Is the interbreeding good or bad for either species? If one is endangered and the other isn't, how should wildlife managers handle control efforts when it's impossible to tell the two apart without DNA tests?
"We think the delisting rule in the Great Lakes should at least await the status review for the eastern wolf, so the [Fish and Wildlife] Service can really look at the cumulative impacts to both species in the region," Henry said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public comment on its plan until July 5, and hopes to have a final decision on gray wolves by the end of the year.