BRAINERD, Minn. — Federal officials are weighing impassioned testimony from farmers, ranchers, hunters and wildlife advocates at the only public hearing in the country on the government’s latest attempt to take gray wolves off the endangered and threatened species list.
The proposal would return management of the predators to the states, potentially subjecting them to hunting and trapping. In most states it’s currently illegal to kill a wolf unless it’s threatening a human.
Federal officials explained at the hearing Tuesday night in the east-central Minnesota city of Brainerd that they want to lift the protections because they no longer consider the animals endangered, Minnesota Public Radio reported. Gray wolves, once hunted to the brink of extinction in the lower 48 states, have made a dramatic recovery since they were protected in 1974. There are now more than 6,000 gray wolves in nine states. Minnesota has the most at more than 2,650.
“The reason we keep species listed is because we want to protect species from going extinct. Wolves are not even close to that,” said Lori Nordstrom, an assistant regional director with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They’re doing very well in the Great Lakes region, and they’re also expanding out west.”
But supporters of keeping the protections said removal is premature. While wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and the northern Rocky Mountains have rebounded, they haven’t fully recovered across their historic range. They said recovery in the Pacific Northwest and southern Rockies is just beginning.
Shirley Nordrum, a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, talked about how Ojibwe people consider the wolf as a brother. She argued that, because wolves have recovered only a fraction of their historic range, the government’s assertion about recovery is flawed.
But farmers and ranchers talked about losing calves and pets to wolf predation. Hunters said wolves are hurting game populations.
Joe Wilebski, a cattle rancher from Kittson County in far northwestern Minnesota, told how he lost 26 calves in one year. He talked about his family’s stress and worries over the risk of wolf attacks on their livestock, and said he was pleased the federal government wants to lift the protections, though it continues to provide trapping services for farmers and ranchers facing problem wolves.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has made several attempts to take gray wolves off the endangered list, only to be reversed in the courts. Environmental groups have pledged another court challenge if the government proceeds.
The agency will make a final decision after the public comment period closes July 15. The deadline is March 2020.