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Great Lakes gray wolf
Restoring the Gray Wolf
International Wolf Magazine, Summer 2011

It’s Too Early to Abandon Wolf Recovery
By Collette Adkins Giese

I feel fortunate to live in Minnesota where we’ve always had wolves in our woods. Minnesota wolves survived the bounties and federal extermination program that wiped out wolves across the rest of the country by the 1960s. So in Minnesota these top predators have been allowed to play their vital, time-tested role in regulating prey species like deer, providing food for other wildlife and driving essential evolutionary processes.

With protection under the Endangered Species Act, wolves have grown in numbers and dispersed from Minnesota into northern Wisconsin and from there into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. And last spring for the first time in decades, wolves raised pups in the northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Such progress shows that the Endangered Species Act works, but its important protections should not be lifted before full recovery of the wolf is achieved.

The latest science on wolves of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan shows that significant threats remain. To begin, scientists have found that gray wolves are suffering from widespread hybridization. Some thought that wolves mixed with coyotes, which invaded the area after the wolf population was decimated. But now scientists believe that most observed hybridization is between two different wolf species: gray wolf and eastern wolf. Scientists have suggested that human
activities — land clearing and predator control programs — may have facilitated this hybridization. Presence of hybrids could mean that population numbers of actual gray wolves have not met recovery goals. Delisting is premature until scientists resolve these critical issues.

Disease also threatens the wolf population. Scientists have documented the harmful impacts of disease on wolves in the Great Lakes region. For example, Dr. L. David Mech, a renowned wolf biologist affiliated with the International Wolf Center, found that canine parvovirus previously killed between 40 percent and 60 percent of wolf pups in Minnesota and may have restricted recolonization of unoccupied habitats. And sarcoptic mange is slowing recovery in Michigan and Wisconsin, although both populations still manage to increase annually. Scientists warn that climate change could increase the threat of wildlife diseases by altering seasonal weather patterns.

The risks from disease and other threats would be made worse by state wildlife agencies that have made it clear that should federal protection for wolves be eliminated, they would drastically reduce wolf populations. For example, Minnesota’s plan resurrects a version of the old bounty system by paying state-certified predator controllers $150 for each wolf killed. And the Wisconsin plan seeks to reduce the state population by half to reach a target goal of 350 wolves.

The recovery of the gray wolf on a larger scale is also far from complete. Wolves occupy a paltry 5 percent of their historical range in the lower 48 states. There are still vast swaths of viable but unoccupied wolf habitat across the country, including within the Pacific Northwest and California, the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, the southern Rocky Mountains, the Southwest and the forests of New England and upstate New York.

Despite limited success, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tried three times to reduce or remove Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in the Great Lakes region. Each attempt was rightly rebuffed by the courts. But now, in response to petitions from Minnesota and Wisconsin wildlife managers, the agency is again considering taking Great Lakes wolves off the list of protected species. And bills have also been introduced in Congress that would outlaw
any Endangered Species Act protection for gray wolves, including those in the Great Lakes region.

The loudest call to remove protections from Great Lakes wolves seems to come from livestock producers who view wolves as a threat and who will undoubtedly kill more wolves if those protections are taken away. But there are better solutions than simply trapping and shooting wolves. There are plenty of tested, nonlethal options to safeguard livestock from wolves, including the use of guard dogs, flagging and predator-proof fencing. And when depredations do happen, livestock owners in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are compensated for their losses. That is not the case for livestock lost to coyotes and other predators, disease or
bad weather, which collectively kill far more livestock than wolves take.

None of this is to say having wolves in our midst is always easy. They’re complicated, mobile and intelligent predators that require land, a prey base and careful management from state and federal agencies. Yet over the decades most of us have learned to live with wolves and appreciate the natural role they play.

This regional and national journey to return wolves—to the extent possible—to their former range is far from over. Pulling the plug now will not only shortchange the commitment we made to restore this majestic animal but also the collective commitment this nation made to itself to protect and enhance the wild places that, in turn, help restore us all.

Collette Adkins Giese, Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, a national conservation group that advocates for endangered species and wild places.

Editor’s note: Regarding the $150 per wolf payment, this is not a bounty in the usual objectionable sense. The objectionable aspect of a bounty system is that payments are made for any wolf taken by anyone over a large area, i.e. several counties or a state. In the Minnesota plan, the $150 would only be paid to a specific certified controller who took a wolf within one mile of a depredation.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton