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Great Lakes-area wolves back under federal protection

A federal judge ruled the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service moved wrongly to remove wolves from the federal endangered list.

Wild Wolves in the United States
A federal judge in California on Thursday ruled that wolves across most of the U.S. — including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — are once again afforded federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Contributed / Humane Society of the United States / Bob Landis

DULUTH — A federal judge in California on Thursday ruled that gray wolves across most of the U.S. — including Minnesota and Wisconsin — are again protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, overturning the late 2020 move by the Trump administration to hand wolf management back to individual states.

In a 25-page ruling, Judge Jeffrey White ruled in favor of Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Humane Society of the United States and other groups, finding that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service moved wrongly to remove federal protections for wolves in November 2020.

The groups had argued that several states moved too quickly, and with too much blood lust to once again cull wolves with excessive hunting and trapping seasons, including Wisconsin's February 2021 season in which 218 wolves were killed in less than 72 hours, nearly double the 119-wolf quota set by the state for non-Native hunters and trappers. The groups said state wildlife agencies showed they couldn’t be trusted to keep wolves from once again falling into endangered status.

The ruling also faulted the federal agency for a number of legal and scientific errors, including its failure to assess threats to wolves across their entire range and not just where they are plentiful now.

Wisconsin’s plans to open a second hunt this past fall had been temporarily blocked by a state judge, but future hunting seasons there and elsewhere were likely under state management. With federal Endangered Species Act protections now back in place for wolves, hunting is once again prohibited in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and most other states where wolves roam. The exception is the Northern Rockies population of wolves which remains unprotected, although the federal government under the Biden administration already is reviewing whether aggressive wolf-killing laws passed by Idaho and Montana are cause to relist wolves there, too.


“This is a huge win for gray wolves and the many people across the country who care so deeply about them,” Collette Adkins, Minnesota-based carnivore conservation director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “I hope this ruling finally convinces the Fish and Wildlife Service to abandon its longstanding, misguided efforts to remove federal wolf protections. The agency should work instead to restore these ecologically important top carnivores to places like the southern Rockies and northeastern United States.”

Wisconsin estimates about 1,100 wolves roam the northern reaches of the state. Minnesota has about 2,700 wolves mostly in the northern third of the state. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources currently is rewriting a state wolf management plan, but any effort for a Minnesota hunting or trapping season is now prohibited under federal protection. Wolves in Minnesota had been listed as federally threatened prior to delisting which allowed lethal wolf management efforts by federal trappers near where pets and livestock have been killed. It’s expected that practice, which culls about 200 wolves each year, will continue.

Several farming, ranching and hunting groups had supported wolf delisting, saying it was past time their numbers were culled to reduce conflicts with livestock and pets and reduce wolf predation on deer and other wildlife. But wolf supporters say the animal still needs more time and space to reclaim its original range.

“For far too long the federal government has made decisions about the fate of gray wolves based on political pressure from special interest groups, failing to heed the very clear science which shows that federal protections are necessary to allow this iconic species to recover and thrive,” said Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, in a statement. “Today’s decision is a fantastic victory, and it shows the Fish and Wildlife Service that they must stop making politically motivated decisions when it comes to the very survival of species. We urge the agency to use the court’s decision today to inform all of their choices about gray wolves moving forward and to immediately restore federal protections for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies as well.”

The federal government has 60 days to appeal the court’s decision.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, environment and natural resources for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jmyers@duluthnews.com .

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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