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Hearing on wolves' protected status draws large, passionate crowds

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Pro-wolf rally in Brainerd's Gregory Park
Groups opposed to the federal proposal to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list gather in Brainerd's Gregory Park Tuesday before attending the public hearing held nearby at the Franklin Arts Center. At right is Collette Adkins, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity's Endangered Species Program.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

Farmers, ranchers, hunters and wildlife advocates filled a Brainerd auditorium Tuesday night to give passionate testimony for and against a proposal to remove federal protections for gray wolves.

The hearing was the only opportunity, anywhere in the country, for members of the public to give input in person on the proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take gray wolves off the endangered and threatened species list  — which, among other things, makes it illegal to kill a wolf unless it's threatening a human.

De-listing gray wolves would turn management of wolf populations over to states, potentially making them subject to hunting and trapping. Only the Mexican gray wolf would remain under federal protection.

Federal officials say they want to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list because they no longer consider the animals endangered. During their 40-plus years of protected status, gray wolves — once almost extinct in the lower 48 states —  have made a dramatic recovery. There are now more than 6,000 gray wolves, in nine states. Minnesota's gray wolf population alone is estimated at more than 2,650.

Public hearing to de-list the gray wolf
The public hearing drew a roughly equal number of supporters and detractors of the proposal to remove the gray wolf from federal protections. While waiting for the hearing to start, many struck up conversions.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

"The reason we keep species listed is because we want to protect species from going extinct. Wolves are not even close to that," said Lori Nordstrom, who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the endangered and threatened species list. "They're doing very well in the Great Lakes region, and they're also expanding out west."

But opponents of the proposal to remove the wolves from federal protection say the move is premature. They argue that, while wolf populations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and the northern Rocky Mountains have rebounded, gray wolves haven't fully recovered their historic range. And they argue that wolves' recovery in areas like the Pacific Northwest and the southern Rockies is just beginning. 

One by one Tuesday night, they addressed the crowd and the Fish and Wildlife Service officials gathered in the auditorium of the Franklin Arts Center: Farmers and ranchers and conservationists and hunters and wildlife activists and environmentalists and elected officials.

Melissa Clark and Cody Schmatz
Melissa Clark, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service public affairs specialist, left, talks with Cody Schmatz, a cattle producer from Kittson County. Schmatz signed up to speak at the public hearing in support of the de-listing plan.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

Shirley Nordrum, a University of Minnesota Extension educator and member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe based in nearby Cass Lake, talked about how Ojibwe people consider the wolf as a brother. She argued that, because wolves have recovered only a fraction of their historic range, the Fish and Wildlife Service's estimation that the population is recovered is flawed.

Peter David, a wildlife biologist with Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, said that wolves' comeback has brought balance and healing, but can't be judged by population numbers in a few states. 

"We've come a long ways, but what all has been accomplished is not secure, nor is it enough," David said. "The recovery of wolves on this broader landscape cannot be measured just by what we witness in our backyard,"

But supporters of the federal proposal say wolves no longer require federal protection, and more state management is needed to keep their numbers under control. Representatives of hunting groups said wolves are hurting big game populations.

Shirley Nordrum and Peter David
Shirley Nordrum, a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, talks with Peter David, of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, during the public hearing. Nordrum and David were there to caution against removing the gray wolf from the endangered species list.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

John Coulter of Tracy, Minn., spoke on behalf of Big Game Forever, an organization based in Utah that says its role is "to counter threats to wildlife, sportsmen's rights, our way of life."

Coulter said wolves are destroying hunting traditions in some places by reducing game populations. 

"When there's nothing to hunt," he said, "people do not hunt."

Farmers and ranchers talked about losing calves and pets to wolf predation.

Joe Wilebski
Joe Wilebski, a cattle producer from Kittson County, shares his story about wolf predation on his ranch. In one year, he said, he lost 26 calves. He talked about the stress and worry he and his family experience if wolves attack their calves or cattle, and said he was pleased the government was proposing to de-list the wolf.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

State Rep. John Poston, R-Lake Shore, represents Cass, Todd and Wadena counties at the Legislature. He talked about the impact on farmers and ranchers who have lost livestock to wolves. 

"That's a huge financial impact to that family, that farm," he said.

John Apple, of Aitkin County, agreed: "It's only a matter of time before it's going to be hard to control them if the state isn't allowed to do it," he said.

Gray wolf
In this photo released by Michigan Technological University, a gray wolf is shown in Isle Royale National Park in 2006.
John Vucetich | Michigan Technological University via AP 2006

Tuesday's hearing is the latest in what has been a lengthy legal battle over gray wolves. In 1974, the animal was put under federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. 

By 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service had removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list in the western Great Lakes states. But a year and a half later, a federal judge placed the wolf back under endangered species protection.

In 2009 and 2011, wolves were removed from the endangered species list again. Minnesota moved quickly to hold hunting seasons, in 2012, 2013 and 2014.  But judges soon returned the wolf to federal protection after legal challenges. 

Today, gray wolves are listed as threatened in Minnesota and as endangered throughout the remainder of the United States and Mexico outside of the northern Rocky Mountains. Gray wolves in the northern Rockies were removed from the endangered species list in 2011 and 2012.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hearing on wolf protections
Attendees pack the auditorium of the Franklin Arts Center in Brainerd.
Vickie Kettlewell for MPR News

Environmental groups have pledged to again challenge in court any action to eliminate protection for wolves. 

A final decision on whether the gray wolf will remain on the endangered species list will come after the public comment period closes on July 15. The deadline is March 2020.