Updated: October 29, 2020 06:48 PM
Created: October 29, 2020 01:01 PM
Trump administration officials on Thursday stripped Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in most of the U.S., ending longstanding federal safeguards and putting states in charge of overseeing the predators.
The U.S. Department of Interior announcement just days ahead of the Nov. 3 election could lead to the resumption of wolf hunts in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin — a crucial battleground in the campaign between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.
It's the latest in a series of administration actions on the environment that appeal to key blocs of rural voters in the race's final days, including steps to allow more mining in Minnesota and logging in Alaska.
Both feared and revered by people, gray wolves have recovered from near extinction in parts of the country but remain absent from much of their historical range.
Federal wildlife officials contend thriving populations in the western Great Lakes region, Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest ensure the species' long-term survival. They argue it's not necessary for wolves to be in every place they once inhabited to be considered recovered.
"After more than 45 years as a listed species, the gray wolf has exceeded all conservation goals for recovery," Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said in a statement.
Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe agreed that wolves were recovered and said it's time for the agency to "move on" to help other imperiled wildlife. But he questioned the announcement coming so close to the election.
"It creates the perception that it's being done for political reasons," Ashe said in an interview.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said it concluded in 2019 that "all evidence indicates that the gray wolf population in Minnesota has recovered" but that situation in Minnesota isn't representative of the wolf's status elsewhere and "a blanket delisting across the United States may not be warranted." As of Thursday, the DNR said that continues to be its position on the matter.
The DNR also extended a public input deadline on gray wolf management to Nov. 20.
"We want people to understand that wolf management is about far more than whether hunting and trapping wolves is or is not permitted in Minnesota. Our commitment to a healthy and sustainable wolf population in Minnesota is unwavering," the DNR said in a release. "We will continue to use the best available science, coordination with our federal and tribal partners, robust public engagement, and careful consideration of all perspectives to inform all of our management decisions, including any future decisions regarding the potential for a wolf season in Minnesota following completion of our plan update."
"Today is the first step in healing for our family," said Ashley Calloway, a Wisconsin farmer.
Farmers who've lost cattle to wolves agree this decision is a milestone that will protect their hard work.
"As a farmer, I do not want to see the wolf population eliminated but I do want to see the wolf population managed so we can exist in harmony," Calloway said.
But not everyone agrees with Thursday's announcement.
"I think this is a political decision," said Maureen Hackett, president of Howling for Wolves.
Hackett said she believes wolves maintain a biodiverse environment and said this move could be devastating.
"I think this is against public sentiment, I think this is against sound science and I think this will destroy this national endangered species," Hackett said.
"That's absolutely ridiculous, and it's not grounded in any evidentiary facts at all," Bernhardt responded. "That's a laughable position, to be honest."
Bernhardt called this a milestone of efforts that have taken over 45 years, and seeing the wolf population rebound should be celebrated, he said.
"The odyssey to determine whether the gray wolf is an endangered species has been a very very long road," Bernhardt said.
Some biologists and former government officials who previously reviewed the Trump administration's proposal for lifting protections said it lacked scientific justification. And wildlife advocates worry the move will make it harder, if not impossible, for wolves to recover in more regions, such as the southern Rocky Mountains and portions of the Northeast.
Their numbers also are sure to drop in the western Great Lakes area, as happened previously when federal controls were lifted, said Adrian Treves, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin. Hunting seasons took their toll and research showed that poachers were emboldened by the absence of federal enforcement, he said.
"The science is 100 percent clear that there will be a spike in mortality," he said.
The decision keeps protections for a small population of Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest. It's the latest attempt over two decades to return management authority to the states. Courts have frequently rejected such moves after opponents filed lawsuits.
Environmental groups pledged to return to court yet again.
"Instead of pursuing further wolf recovery, the Fish and Wildlife Service has just adopted the broadest, most destructive delisting rule yet," said Collette Adkins with the Center for Biological Diversity.
An initiative on the Colorado ballot next week seeks to reintroduce wolves there in coming years. With federal protections removed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would have no say about moving ahead with the plan, if voters approve it.
Wolves were wiped out across most of the U.S. by the 1930s under government-sponsored poisoning and trapping campaigns. A remnant population in the western Great Lakes region has since expanded to some 4,400 animals in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
More than 2,000 occupy six states in the Northern Rockies and Pacific Northwest after wolves from Canada were reintroduced in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park beginning 25 years ago.
Following a protracted courtroom battle that ended when Congress intervened, the Northern Rockies wolves are now under state management and are hunted in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
State officials also allowed hunting of Great Lakes wolves for several years last decade when protections were removed. The hunts ended when protections were restored under a 2014 federal court order.
Wolves were given initial federal protections in the late 1960s and listed as an endangered species in 1978, except in Minnesota where they were classified as threatened. A government-sponsored recovery effort had cost roughly $160 million as of last year.
Wolves have never been legally protected in Alaska, which has a population of 7,000 to 11,000.
Grant Spickelmier, the Executive Director of the International Wolf Center, said it will be especially important for states to seek good scientific information to inform their management decisions.
"We cannot let one-sided misinformation and fairy tales drive management decisions about wolves. We need wolf management to be based on the best scientific data available and respectful dialogue."
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