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Gray Wolf Is Again a Political Flashpoint in the Midwest

U.S. lawmakers target endangered status of a predator that has roiled hunters and ranchers


A years long tussle over the fate of the gray wolf in the Upper Midwest, pitting hunters and ranchers against conservationists, is back in the hands of lawmakers.

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators and House members have introduced legislation that would supersede a court ruling and remove the gray wolf from federal protection, arguing that the wolf population is healthy and stable.

The gray wolf, on the brink of extinction in the mid-20th century, has battled back, largely thanks to its inclusion on the Endangered Species Act list in 1978. There were 3,600 wolves in the western Great Lakes region in 2015, the most recent count.

The return of the apex predator, which can weigh more than 100 pounds and can traverse as much as 30 miles in a day, has brought complaints from ranchers about wolves killing their livestock, and hunters, claiming that there weren’t enough deer and moose to shoot.

The optimal number of wolves is hotly disputed, with some viewing the animal as a menace that the region could do without and others seeing wolves as a restorer of natural balance in the ecosystem.

In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from federal protection. Wisconsin and Minnesota enacted wolf hunts that year, enraging conservationists who called the hunts premature. Other states, like Oregon and Montana, have previously removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list.

But a federal court in 2014, in a case brought by conservationist groups, reinstated federal protections under the Endangered Species Act in the western Great Lakes region, arguing that the Fish and Wildlife decision had been “arbitrary and capricious.”

Last month, a group of lawmakers introduced legislation to reinstate that Fish and Wildlife Service rule, and hand control of the wolf population back to the states, including Wyoming. The sponsors of the House legislation include Rep. Collin Peterson (D., Minn.) and Reps. Sean Duffy (R., Wis.) and Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.). In the Senate, sponsors include Republican Ron Johnson and Democrat Tammy Baldwin, both of Wisconsin.

The state management agency in Minnesota was “doing exactly what needed to be done, then the court came along and screwed it up,” said Mr. Peterson. “We’re not doing this for any partisan thing. We’re just being practical, to come up with a way for [the states] to manage this thing.”

Mr. Duffy said the legislators have “no intention of creating an open season on wolves” and that protecting the species has been successful. But he said the animals are causing “a huge problem for communities.”

Terry Quam, a cattle rancher in Lodi, Wis., said that when wolves are nearby, cattle can’t rest at night, don’t put on weight and don’t breed as effectively. And that’s the least of his worries.

“There’s no more helpless feeling that a farmer or rancher has going to bed than knowing when you wake up in the morning something you have is gonna be gone,” said Mr. Quam, 62 years old. “Right now you have no way of doing absolutely anything. You can sit in your yard looking at a gray wolf eating on your cattle and you cannot do a damn thing.”

Opponents say the new bill would lead to immediate and unchecked hunting of the wolves, and some have nicknamed it “The War on Wolves Act.” Other opponents are particularly concerned about a provision that would prevent the bill from being challenged in court.

“We’re not utterly and always against the management of the wolf population; it’s a matter of who does it and why and how,” said Bill Davis, director of the Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club. “We don’t think you should be limiting judicial review.”

Mr. Davis also notes that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which would oversee the wolf population in that state if the bill passes, recently had its budget cut dramatically.

“They don’t have the capacity to manage the wolf population appropriately,” Mr. Davis said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that “wolf numbers continue to be robust, stable and self-sustaining,” and thus no longer need federal protection.

Adding to the debate is a new study that claims to show that the state of Wisconsin is underreporting the number of wolves poached, undermining arguments by lawmakers and government agencies. Adrian Teves, an environmental studies professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and several co-authors studied 33 years of gray wolf mortality in Wisconsin. Their key finding, published Monday in the Journal of Mammalogy, is that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources didn’t accurately track the number of wolves killed by poaching, and that the true number is significantly higher.

“The state underestimated poaching by more than 5%, and probably more than 11%,” Mr. Teves said. “We’re suggesting that the science for measuring poaching needs a fundamental revision.”

Mr. Teves and his co-authors argue more broadly that lawmakers’ push to delist wolves ignores scientific consensus and that states aren’t ready to manage endangered species scientifically.

The Wisconsin DNR defended its methods and cites a steadily increasing wolf population in Wisconsin. Its latest numbers show a current count of between 866 and 897 wolves, a 16% increase from the previous year.