Back in August of 2017, a federal appeals court, including justices appointed by both Presidents Bush and Obama, retained federal protection for gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region, ruling that the government made crucial errors when it dropped them from the endangered species list five years ago.
It ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had not sufficiently considered important factors. The court’s reasons for their ruling included the FWS’s lack of consideration of how loss of historical territory would affect the predator’s recovery and how removing the Great Lakes population segment from the endangered list would affect wolves in other parts of the nation. The court ruled that the process used by the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove protections from the wolves was fatally flawed.
By designating wolves in the three Great Lakes states and six others as a distinct population segment and dropping them from the endangered list without evaluating the effect on wolves elsewhere, the service created a “backdoor route” for lifting protections elsewhere.
The court upheld a district judge who overruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had determined that wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin had recovered after being shot, trapped and poisoned nearly out of existence in the previous century. They have bounced back and now total about 3,800. Even so, courts have sided with those nonprofit groups that believe the wolf delisting was not legal and have sued to block the service’s repeated efforts to strip wolves in the region of their protected status and put states in charge of them.
The FWS made its latest attempt in 2011. U.S. District Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia Beryl A. Howell struck down the plan three years later.
“There are times a court must lean forward from the bench to let an agency know, in no uncertain terms, that enough is enough. This is one of those times.” – Judge Beryl A. Howell
She singled out Minnesota’s plan, which she said permitted the unlimited killing of wolves in some areas. The plan calls for a minimum population of 1,600 animals in the state. But it allows “a virtual carte blanche” for eradication of wolves in the southern two-thirds of the state by allowing land owners and managers the right to kill them any time to protect their livestock and pets, even in the absence of attacks.
This ruling forced FWS to re-write the delisting management plan and be accountable for continued recovery in states’ hands. And we are here again.
The reason behind the lawsuit was that many felt wolves had not recovered in most of their range and, maybe more importantly, the states wolf management plans were wolf-hostile, threatened continued recovery, and lacked the best available science. As the state management plans for wolves currently stand, they are untenable. A delisting cannot go forward unless states such as Wisconsin — with its abhorrent wolf management plans, cruel hunting seasons using snares and dogs with no scientific basis for large hunting quotas — are forced to write state management plans that are much more moderate for fear that if they are not, environmental groups will head right back to court again.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may do the right thing in this plan and require much more democratic influence in the process, outside science and other changes laid out in the winning lawsuit, for the same fear.
However, this is the Ryan Zinke’s FWS and if history is a guide, democracy, integrity and best available science will not be used in this process. While we hope for the best, I can’t see every single “t” being crossed or “i” dotted. That will also end up with the public, who do not feel well-represented in wildlife agencies, heading to court to make sure our governments are accountable to the public trust.
So in either of these scenarios, I have hope that this rewrite will be good for wolves, and while we are waiting for the open comment period, it is not a bad idea to reach out to your elected officials, whether on the local, state or federal level and show how important wolves are on the landscape and how they do not deserve to be politicized. Attend your game board or agency meetings and get involved now, so you can be a trusted voice in this process.