By Garret Ellison
WASHINGTON, DC — House Republicans in Congress have introduced legislation that would drop federal protections for gray wolves in the Great Lakes region and give population management control back to hunting-friendly state regulators amid broader plans to overhaul the federal Endangered Species Act.
The bill to remove the gray wolf from the endangered list in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Wyoming includes a jurisdictional stripping provision meant to bar the courts from hearing any legal challenges to the legislation, which, if made law, would stop wolf “management by litigation,” according to bill sponsors.
“Wyoming should be able to manage the gray wolf without outside interference,” said Wyoming Congressman Liz Cheney, who introduced H.R. 424 on Jan. 10 alongside representatives of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The bill has 14 co-sponsors, including four Michigan representatives, all Republican, and one Democrat, Rep. Richard Nolan of Minnesota.
From Michigan, co-sponsors include Reps. Tim Walberg, Bill Huizenga, John Moolenaar and Jack Bergman, who represents Michigan’s expansive 1st District, which covers the Upper Peninsula and much of the northern Lower Peninsula.
Bergman, who won election in November, was appointed this month to the House Natural Resources Committee, where the bill was referred. He did not return messages seeking comment through his communications staff.
Previous attempt to roll back federal protection for wolves have been blocked by Democrats or in the courts through litigation by wildlife advocates. Opponents of the new bill say they’re already gearing-up for a grassroots battle at the state level given the greater likelihood the legislation will succeed under a GOP-controlled Congress and the incoming Donald Trump administration.
“I think we’ll see the hardest fight of our lives in the next four years,” said Melissa Smith, who represents the Great Lakes region for the Endangered Species Coalition, a network of groups working to safeguard the federal law.
The debate over wolf delisting boils down to hunting. Wildlife advocates and tribes staunchly oppose sport killing while conservation officials tend to see regulated hunts as important to manage the predator population. There’s virtually no middle ground between them. In Michigan’s 2015 Wolf Management Plan update, a stakeholder roundtable agreed on “every other issue” except whether a regulated game season should happen in the absence of a need to reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock, pets and humans.
In Wisconsin, state law requires a hunt be held once the state receives authority to manage wolves. The state is still updating its 1999 management plan, which aims to reduce the gray wolf population to 350 animals or less. Presently, there’s between 866 and 897 Wisconsin wolves in 222 packs. Wisconsin is the only state that allows wolves to be hunted using dogs.
In Michigan, the stage is set to hold a second wolf-hunting season after Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill that gives the Natural Resources Commission authority to designate wolves as game if federal protections are dropped. The bill, which passed the Michigan Legislature at 10 p.m. during a lame-duck session on Dec. 14, was the fourth such bill in a multi-year battle to authorize a hunting season.
Passage occurred less than a month after the state appeals court struck down a lower ruling that upheld Michigan’s designation of wolves as a game species.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources estimates there are at least 618 wolves in the Upper Peninsula, a small drop from the last count. Michigan held its first and only wolf hunt in late 2013, a year after federal protections were dropped in the region. Twenty-three wolves were killed. There was no hunt in 2014, when statewide voters overturned enabling laws.
In late 2014, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell put the gray wolf back on the endangered species list after deciding the Endangered Species Act does not allow the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to declare a “distinct population segment” of a species recovered and then drop protection within that zone on a map.
Howell’s order marked the fourth time a judge had overturned an attempt to delist the gray wolf and she made it clear in a 111-page opinion her goal was to clear up years of litigation and confusion over proper protection levels.
The latest legislation would essentially invalidate Howell’s opinion and reinstate the last federal delisting of gray wolves, issued in 2012. That development would be welcomed by some within the academic community, which has split over whether or not wolf protections should be dropped in parts of North America.
While some biologists argue that wolf populations have recovered enough to warrant delisting, others counter that the species has yet to repopulate its historic range and state-sanctioned hunts threaten to undo population gains.
Wolves have become emblematic of the Endangered Species Act in recent years, partly due to nearly two decades of legal battles over efforts by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to remove them from the endangered list. Gray wolves have been removed and returned to the endangered list four times since 2003.
The list was developed under the landmark 1973 law, passed in response to the extinction threat to the bald eagle.
According to the Associated Press, House Republicans emboldened by a legislative majority and Trump presidency are moving forward with plans to curb the endangered law’s reach, arguing it has hindered business interests like fossil fuels drilling, logging and other economic development for decades.
The Endangered Species Act “has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It’s been used for control of the land,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, who told the AP the law has been “hijacked” by environmentalists and he would “love to invalidate” it.
Potential Endangered Species Act reforms being advanced by Republicans include capping the number of species that can be listed, raising the bar for listing a species, giving states greater say in listing decisions and limiting the ability to challenge decisions in the courts by prohibiting judicial review.
Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, issued a statement supporting the legislation. “Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that gray wolves in the Great Lakes region are not endangered,” he said. “The state of Michigan is best equipped to manage their population, and Michigan farmers must be able to protect their livestock from the growing gray wolf population.”
Smith counters the threat to livestock in wolf-populated areas is overblown and the threat to small farmers pales in comparison to economic competition by big agriculture, which she accused to helping drive the anti-wolf agenda.
“Science has shown that lethal removal of problem wolves doesn’t work and can increase problems on farms,” she said.
“The real reason behind all of this is that the hunting lobby, sportsman groups and National Rifle Association want to hunt wolves and to appease rural voters who see wolves as a proxy for all the other problems in their lives.”
Wildlife advocates warn changes to the endangered law could make it tougher to list new species and would allow economic and business interests to trump scientific decision-making on listing or delisting species.
The potential endangered law changes may result in species “horse-trading” among members in Congress, said Smith, suggesting that lawmakers are creating a deal-making framework to back, for example, weaker protections for certain species like the sage grouse, which faces habitat loss threats out west, in exchange for support for delisting wolves in the Great Lakes region.
“I think it’s setting a dangerous precedent.”