Great Lakes wolves ordered returned to endangered list

Wolves, February 2008
In this February 2008 photo, gray wolves howl at an exhibit area at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.
AP Photo/John Flesher

A federal judge has ordered that endangered species protection for gray wolves must immediately be restored in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The decision puts an end to controversial hunts in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

U.S. District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell returned management of wolves in the western Great Lakes states to the federal government, overturning a 2012 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"The D.C. Circuit has noted that, at times, a court 'must lean forward from the bench to let an agency know, in no uncertain terms, that enough is enough,'" Judge Howell wrote in her 111 page decision. "This case is one of those times."

The Humane Society of the United States and other animal welfare groups filed the suit last February. They argued Fish and Wildlife's decision to remove the wolf from endangered species protection threatens the animals' recovery in the Great Lakes region.

More than 1,500 wolves have been killed since Minnesota and Wisconsin authorized hunting seasons in 2011, said Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel at the Human Society. "We are pleased that the court has recognized that the basis for the de-listing decision was flawed, and would stop wolf recovery in its tracks," he added in a statement.

The other plaintiffs in the suit include Born Free USA, Help Our Wolves Live and Friends of Animals and Their Environment.

The decision restores wolves to "threatened" status in Minnesota, and "endangered" in Wisconsin and Michigan. People may kill wolves in self-defense, but not to protect livestock or pets, said Minnesota DNR spokesman Chris Niskanen. Federal workers must be enlisted to kill wolves when there is proof they are threatening animals.

Niskanen said the agency received the decision late in the day, and hadn't had time to digest the lengthy ruling or determine what it means for the state in the long term, and whether there is basis for appeal.

It's been more than 40 years since the federal government imposed protections to prevent wolves from going extinct in the lower 48 states.

Since 2003 the federal government has tried four times to "de-list" the wolf from the Endangered Species List in the Great Lakes region, arguing the wolf had recovered to sustainable levels. The first three attempts were blocked by lawsuits.

"We've been in this sort of netherworld where it's gone from state management to federal protections back to state management," said Niskanen.

The fourth attempt to remove the wolf from the Endangered Species List in January 2012 succeeded. That's when Minnesota and the other states assumed management of their wolf populations.

Minnesota and Wisconsin have since held three wolf hunts. Michigan authorized a hunt, but voters overturned that decision in a referendum vote in November.

Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources said in a statement Friday night that it is reviewing the decision, but that hunting and killing wolves to protect pets and livestock is now illegal in the state. The statement noted while the "department is disappointed by this decision, we will continue to support USFWS and their original decision to de-list and remain confident in the State of Wisconsin's ability to manage our wolf population."

Minnesota's third hunting and trapping season just ended last week with the killing of 272 wolves, 22 more than the target amount. That prompted protests outside DNR headquarters in St. Paul, led by Howling for Wolves, which has opposed the hunt.

Founder Maureen Hackett said the ruling is "good news for the future of Minnesota wolves. The vast majority of Minnesotans do want to protect wolves for future generations," she said. "So we have to come up with a smart, rational way of allowing wolves to exist."

The latest DNR population survey estimated Minnesota's wolf population at 470 packs and 2,423 individuals. That's 212 more wolves than estimated last year, but about 500 fewer than the last estimate before hunting began.

DNR officials have argued the state can have a regulated hunting and trapping season and still assure the iconic predator continues to thrive.

"We're highly invested in making sure that the wolf is protected in Minnesota," said agency spokesman Niskanen. "There's no desire by the DNR to endanger the long term future of wolves in Minnesota. They're an important part of the ecosystem."