Gray wolves lose federal protection; state will manage instead

Montana wolf
This undated image provided by Yellowstone National Park, Mont., shows a gray wolf in the wild inside the park.
MacNeil Lyons | National Park Service via AP

Updated: Nov. 2 | Posted: Oct. 30

The federal government Thursday moved to officially end endangered species protection for the gray wolf, a decision that returns management of wolves to states and tribal nations, and paves the way for a potential wolf hunting season in Minnesota.

The announcement has been widely anticipated since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service first proposed removing the wolf from the federal endangered species list in the lower 48 states last March.

The only public hearing in the country on the issue was held in Brainerd in the summer of 2019, when large, passionate crowds spoke out in favor of and against the proposal.

Wolves are controversial animals: Revered by many as apex predators of the northwoods, they are sacred to northern Minnesota’s Ojibwe bands. But they’re also reviled by some for the fear they can instill, and the damage they’ve inflicted on pets and livestock across their range in northern Minnesota. 

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The U.S. Department of the Interior has called the recovery of the gray wolf “one of our nation’s greatest success stories.” By the time the iconic predator was first listed as endangered in 1978, it had been exterminated from nearly the entire lower 48 states, with fewer than 1,000 wolves remaining in the remote forests of northern Minnesota and Isle Royale National Park. 

Now, there are more than 6,000 wolves spread out through northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, and several western states. In Minnesota alone there are an estimated 2,700 wolves. The population in the state has exceeded 2,000 for at least 20 years. 

“The gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery,” Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said Thursday. “Today’s announcement simply reflects the determination that this species is neither a threatened nor endangered species based on the specific factors Congress has laid out in the law.”

Bernhardt added that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will monitor the species for five years to ensure its continued success.

But critics say that, despite the success of wolf recovery efforts, the effort to delist wolves is premature. While the animals’ numbers are strong in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, several environmental groups argue their recovery is fragile, and still in its beginning stages in several states in the western U.S. 

“The courts recognize, even if the feds don’t, that the Endangered Species Act requires real wolf recovery, including in the southern Rockies and other places with ideal wolf habitat,” said Collette Adkins, carnivore conservation director at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. 

Adkins said her group plans to sue in federal court to keep the gray wolf on the endangered species list.

Isle Royale Wolves
A pack of gray wolves is shown on Isle Royale National Park in northern Michigan.
Michigan Technological University, John Vucetich via AP 2006

Another wolf hunt?

The new rule announced Thursday is scheduled to go into effect in early January, 60 days after it’s posted in the federal register on Nov. 3. The rule is just the latest in more than a decade of attempts by the federal government to remove gray wolves from endangered species protection and return them to state control. 

In 2007, the Fish and Wildlife Service attempted to remove the gray wolf in the upper Great Lakes states from federal protection. A year and a half later, a federal judge reversed the ruling. The agency attempted to remove the gray wolf a second time in 2009, but backtracked after another court challenge. 

Two years later, gray wolves were delisted again, and Minnesota moved quickly to authorize a regulated hunt, even though the state’s wolf management plan called for a five-year study before authorizing a hunting season. 

Gray wolf
A gray wolf rests on the snow an opening in the forest north of Duluth.
Bob King | Duluth News Tribune via AP 2013

Hunts were held in conjunction with the state’s deer hunting season in 2012, 2013 and 2014, before a federal judge once again returned wolves to federal protection in December 2014. 

With wolf management returning to state control, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources could once again reauthorize a regulated hunt. In a statement today the agency called its commitment to a healthy and sustainable wolf population “unwavering,” and said it will gather the best available science and consider all perspectives before deciding on any potential future wolf season. 

Gov. Tim Walz has already made up his mind. Last year he supported proposed state legislation to ban the recreational hunting of wolves if the federal government were to remove them from the endangered species list. 

Walz spokesperson Teddy Tschann said the governor’s stance hasn’t changed. “Gov. Walz is disappointed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving towards delisting the gray wolf in the lower 48 states,” Tschann said in a statement. 

Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota also strongly oppose a wolf hunting season. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, which represents 11 Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, said it opposes the removal of wolves from the endangered species list because they fear it’s likely to lead to hunting in the surrounding region. 

“Wolves are seen as relatives to the Annishinaabe and we don't believe in hunting our relatives,” explained Dylan Jennings, GLIFWC spokesperson. “That’s the best way I've heard it described to me by some of our elders.”

More flexibility

Ranching and farming groups have long advocated for a return of wolves to state management, which state officials say allows for more flexibility in addressing wolf-human conflicts. 

With wolves under federal protection, people are only allowed to kill a wolf in self-defense. If wolves are threatening pets or livestock, landowners have to call in a federal trapper to remove wolves from around their property. 

Under state management, “farmers and ranchers have the ability to protect their livelihoods and livestock,” said Miles Kuschel, a third-generation rancher in north-central Minnesota who says he’s watched wolves slowly expand their territory, now completely surrounding his land over the past few decades. 

But others fear that removing federal protections could result in a rapid decline in the predator’s population. 

Maureen Hackett, founder of Minnesota-based Howling for Wolves argues that, instead of stripping wolf protections, we should put more effort into coexistence with wolves. 

“We need a non-lethal wolf plan and continued funding for prevention methods for farmers and ranchers to ensure an intact and healthy wolf population, because the wolf is vital for our ecology and the legacy of future Minnesotans,” she said.

The Minnesota DNR is in the process of updating its wolf management plan, which will help guide the agency as it takes over the management of wolves. After Thursday’s announcement, the DNR said it would extend a deadline to gather public input and ideas about wolf management until Nov. 20. 

As part of the process developing that plan, the agency worked with the University of Minnesota to survey Minnesotans’ opinions of wolves. 

The survey found that state residents largely agree that maintaining a wolf population in Minnesota is important, and that they should occupy about the same amount of habitat. 

But opinions diverged sharply on a proposed hunting season. While at least 80 percent of deer hunters and livestock owners supported a wolf hunting and trapping season, a majority of state residents opposed a wolf hunt. 

The Minnesota DNR plans to have its draft management plan completed by the end of the year or early next year. A decision on hunting would occur after that report is released.

MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this report.

Correction (Nov. 2, 2020) The original version of the story said the public could provide input on a draft management plan until Nov. 20. That draft plan is not complete yet. The public input will guide the DNR as it develops the plan.