Wolves to be delisted

Wolves in captivity
Wolves being studied in captivity
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

This is the federal government's second attempt to take the region's gray wolves - sometimes known as timber wolves - off the endangered species list.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Interior Secretary Gale Norton proposed de-listing two years ago. But that plan lumped Great Lakes states wolves in with wolf populations all the way to the east coast. Wildlife advocates said it would stop wolf recovery in eastern states, and they filed suit.

The new plan focuses just on wolves in the western Great Lakes. It's a better approach, according to Nina Fascione, with Defenders of Wildlife.

"We're thrilled that they listened to the scientists, including our own scientists, who said that they should not lump together the northeast and the Great Lakes for recovery purposes," Fascione says. "And I'm glad that they listened to the judge who did rule in our favor in the last lawsuit saying that that recovery area was too large."

Wolf print
Wolf print taken in northern Wisconsin.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Fascione sees no immediate reason for another round in the courts, although she cautions that "the devil's in the details."

Wolves were first listed as endangered in 1974. Minnesota's wolves were downgraded to threatened - a less protective status - in 1978. But they've remained endangered in both Wisconsin and Michigan, despite the fact the number of wolves in each state has exceeded federal goals.

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Mike Don Carlos with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, says de-listing is long overdue. Minnesota was writing a management plan in 1998, expecting all requirements in place by 1999.

Wolf recovering from sedation at Camp Ripley shortly after a research examination.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

"So we're now, what?" asks Don Carlos. "We're seven years past fully completing that effort, and yet we're still not de-listed."

Now, it looks like that day may come within the next year.

When Minnesota takes over wolf management, Don Carlos says, people will see little difference.

"I think the similarities outweigh the differences," says Don Carlos. "I think the state plan provides exceptional protection to gray wolves in Minnesota. There are differences, however. The state plan is a little more relaxed and permissive regarding dealing with problem wolves in agricultural situations."

But not to a level, he says, that will have any impact on the overall population of wolves. Minnesota's plan calls for at least 1,600 wolves statewide. There may now be twice that many. There's another 1,000 between Wisconsin and Michigan.

Mainly, Minnesota's plan makes it easier for the DNR to control problem wolves. That brings up a hot button issue. Don Carlos says the DNR can consider a public wolf hunt, but not until five years after de-listing.

Wolf pelt
Wolf pelt in DNR offices in northern Minnesota. The pelt comes from an animal probably killed illegally.
MPR Photo/Bob Reha

"It may be considered in the future in Minnesota," says Don Carlos. "It's authorized by law. But it's years and years away."

Wisconsin's plan also allows public harvest, but only with approval by the state legislature, according to Wisconsin DNR biologist Adrian Wydeven.

Wydeven says Wisconsin's 500 wolves are about as many as the state can support.

"For the most part wolves have pretty thoroughly covered areas of suitable habitat across northern Wisconsin," Wydeven says. "There is a few places in northeast Wisconsin where we've got room for a few more wolf packs, but in general, most of the suitable habitat is fairly well filled by wolves."

Wydeven says wolf depredation on livestock has been increasing. De-listing makes it easier to control problem wolves, but he says, it will be done with controls.

"The wolves will continue to be a highly protected species," Wydeven says. "We're going to continue to intensely monitor them, and anybody violating regulations will still face a fairly hefty fine."

A 90 day comment period begins when the proposal is published in the Federal Register. Ron Refsnider, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in Fort Snelling, anticipates few problems.

"This is pretty straight forward," says Refsnider. "It's a small geographical area. All we're talking about is de-listing. There are no special rules. Nothing complicated at all about this. So, I don't think this is going to take an inordinate amount of time. Once the 90 days are up I think we'll jump into it, and look at the comments and any new data that we've received, and within a few months after that we should be able to come to a decision."

Wolf management could be in the hands of the region's states by early next year.