Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced last week that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will soon propose a rule to delist the gray wolf in the lower 48 states and return management of the species to the states and tribes.

The decision is expected to spark a new legal battle over protections for wolves and how best to regulate a species whose population is stable or growing in northern Wisconsin, but is struggling in other areas of its historic range in the Midwest. 

Gray wolves are protected by the federal Endangered Species Act in most of the Lower 48, including Wisconsin, and cannot be hunted or killed, except under special circumstances.

All recent attempts to remove the wolf from protections of the Endangered Species Act, including bills in Congress and budget riders, have failed.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said he was pleased the Interior Department will propose a new rule to delist the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act.

“While (the) announcement is a positive development, liberal activists will surely sue and yet again seek out a sympathetic federal judge to block the decision,” said Johnson. “The only way to avoid legal wrangling and provide a clear resolution for Wisconsin is to pass legislation to allow the state to move forward with a wolf population management plan. My bill to do so has bipartisan support, and I will continue to press my colleagues to act on this important issue.”

Johnson has worked to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list in the western Great Lakes region since 2015, when he introduced legislation with former Rep. Reid Ribble (WI-8) to address the issue. He most recently introduced an amendment to the Natural Resources Management Act to allow three western Great Lakes states and Wyoming to develop pack management plans.

“Once the Fish and Wild­life Service publishes the proposed rule and opens a public comment period, I expect hundreds of Wisconsinites will share their personal views, along with thousands of others nationwide, in support of the government’s new delisting effort,” said Johnson.

Wisconsin had hunt

In December 2014, a federal judge struck down the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision in 2012 to remove gray wolves in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan from the endangered species list.

Wisconsin law allowed for hunting and trapping wolves before the federal court ruling, which means the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) could restart a hunting and trapping season if protections are lifted.

Wisconsin held hunting and trapping seasons for three years, killing 117 wolves in 2012, 257 in 2013 and 154 in 2014 before the judge’s ruling stopped the practice.

In 2000, the DNR estimated the population at 248 and 10 years later it had grown to 704.

In the latest available count, the DNR estimated the minimum count over the winter of 2017-’18 at 905 to 944 wolves — a drop of 2.2% from the previous year.

State Sen. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst) said he also was pleased with the report of the U.S. Department of Interior’s plans to lift endangered species protections on the wolf.

“I absolutely agree with Secretary Bernhardt’s decision to remove endangered species protections for the gray wolf. For several years, the state’s wolf population has gone unmanaged,” said Tiffany. “Many of the state’s top biologists believe the species has recovered and delisting is long overdue. Wisconsin has a proven track record of successful wolf management, and it is about time the federal government returned management au­thority back to the states instead of forcing us to rely on bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.”

Meyer responds

George Meyer, executive director of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation and a former DNR Secretary, said the process being used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the standard way listing and delisting of endangered species is done under the Endangered Species Act.

“It is the process that the service has undertaken three previous times only to be overturned in court,” said Meyer. “We anticipate that the proposed rule and background information that will be issued by the service with its delisting will address the shortcomings outlined in the last court decision — those shortcomings were items that were readily correctible and we have heard that they have addressed them.”

Meyer said the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation will strongly support the delisting for Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota.

“The data is solid that we have sufficient wolves to address the actual delisting number that was set by the service when the wolf was delisted,” said Meyer. “Believe it or not, the number for delisting in Wisconsin is that there needs to be 100 wolves in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan jointly. We have a minimum number of over 900 wolves in the state, with the actual population speculated to be substantially higher.”

Meyer said the other major criterion is that the state must have an acceptable management plan ap­proved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to show that there will continue to be a sustainable population of wolves so as not to cause the species to become endangered in Wisconsin again.

“The service has long approved the Wisconsin DNR’s plan and that is why Wisconsin was allowed to manage the species earlier in this decade for three years,” said Meyer. “The science for delisting for Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan is very solid and endorsed by the DNRs in all three states and the service biologists. The potential portion of the proposed service delisting is that they are proposing to delist the species for the whole nation. We will have to read the delisting information to see what their legal and biological rationale is for that.”