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Carnivore Conservation

Minneapolis Star Tribune, September 30, 2008

A court decision means the species will revert to federal protection, which brings with it tighter rules.
By Tom Meersman, Star Tribune

In a victory for environmentalists, a federal judge has returned the gray wolf in the Upper Midwest to federal protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Monday's action overturns a 2007 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that "de-listed" the wolves, and turned over their management to state natural resource officials in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.

The immediate effect of the court ruling, said Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wolf specialist Dan Stark, is to tighten up on conditions under which wolves may be killed in Minnesota.

"The biggest change that people need to be aware of is they can no longer take a wolf to protect their livestock or pets," he said. "The only way a person can do that is if there's an immediate danger to human safety."

The ruling also sets back the clock for the earliest time that a wolf-hunting season might be permitted in Minnesota. State law authorizes wolf hunting, but not before at least five years have elapsed after federal delisting, and only under certain conditions.

Federal protection also means stiff fines and penalties for illegal killing.

Brian O'Neill, Minneapolis attorney for the four environmental groups that filed the lawsuit, said that the main concern is that wolf populations under state control will nosedive in a few years because of habitat loss and hunting.

"This is just a continuation of the desire for whatever odd reason by the state of Minnesota to kill wolves," O'Neill said. "We've sued and we've sued and we've sued, and we won and we won and we won, and they never go away with this idea."

The groups included the Humane Society of the United States, Help Our Wolves Live, the Animal Protection Institute and the Friends of Animals and Their Environment.

The case, decided in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., focuses on the legal issue of whether the Endangered Species Act allows the Fish and Wildlife Service to take a species off the federally protected list if its population is recovering in one part of the country, but not everywhere across its native range.

The Fish and Wildlife Service contended that gray wolves numbered about 4,000 in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, and no longer needed federal help. After years of work and public hearings, the agency removed the wolves from the list in March 2007.

But the court ruled that the Endangered Species Act is ambiguous about whether "distinct population segments" of animals, such as the western Great Lakes population of gray wolves, may be identified and de-listed separately, whereas the original listing was nationwide.

As a result, the judge reinstated protections for the gray wolf to its previous status as threatened in Minnesota and endangered in Wisconsin and Michigan. He directed Fish and Wildlife to reconsider its 2007 rule and provide a "reasonable explanation" if it intends to de-list the wolf again in the Upper Midwest.

Agency may appeal

Jason Holm, regional spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency is disappointed with the decision and may appeal the case. "We are confident that the wolves have recovered in the three states," Holm said. "We believe this is more a procedural issue than a biological one."

DNR's Stark also said that decision was technical.

"The ruling does not suggest that wolves are imperiled in Minnesota or that state management has been inadequate in any way since they were taken over by the state in 2007," he said.

However, O'Neill said that Fish and Wildlife acted illegally in de-listing the wolves, and that what's at stake is long-term survival of the species. Wolves face shrinking habitat from increased development and road-building in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, he said, and that will only increase in the next 20 or 30 years. "Any thought that a [wolf] population is going to be safe from the pressures of civilization is foolhardy," O'Neill said.

© 2008 Star Tribune.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton