Within a couple of weeks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to once again remove the gray wolf from federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. In most similar cases, this action would be considered definitive and conclusive. Not so with wolves.
That’s because, notwithstanding the science and, many would argue, common sense upon which the service’s delisting is founded, lawsuits from those opposing delisting — among them the Center for Biological Diversity headquartered in Arizona — are likely, if not guaranteed.
At issue, fundamentally, is wolf hunting and trapping. When Minnesota wolves were delisted by the service in 2011 and returned to state management, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) oversaw three consecutive regulated hunting and trapping seasons.
Now, following a judge’s order in 2014 to return wolves to federal management, the service is delisting gray wolves again, and its final rule to that effect will take place this month.
But don’t expect a Minnesota wolf hunting or trapping season this fall, in part because the DNR will spend the next year updating its wolf management plan, and in part, possibly, because Gov. Tim Walz, for whom the DNR works, has said he opposes sport hunting of wolves.
What roles, ultimately, Walz’s opinions will play in the renewal or not of Minnesota wolf hunting and trapping seasons is unclear. What is clearer is that if Walz stands in the way of those seasons next year, barring a court injunction that stalls the delisting, he will do so at considerable political risk, while also possibly inviting a lawsuit against the state.
Perhaps second only to the resurgence of bald eagles, the wolf’s recovery is Minnesota’s foremost wildlife reclamation story. From a low of about 400 wolves in Minnesota in the 1950s to their present population of about 2,700, wolves in the state now occupy virtually all habitat suitable to their existence.
We know this in part because the wolf’s range in the state has expanded considerably from the 1970s to the 1990s but has remained essentially the same the past 20 years.
We also know that regulated hunting and trapping seasons can be held on wolves in Minnesota — just as they are on ducks, pheasants and deer — without adversely affecting their long-term population. Wolf seasons also can have measurable, and important, mitigating effects on cattle and other livestock depredations, and on wolf killings of deer, moose and pets.
The DNR has authority to hold a wolf hunting and trapping season, despite passage by House DFLers last session of a ban on recreational wolf hunts in the state (the Republican-controlled Senate didn’t act on the bill).
But Dan Stark, the DNR’s large carnivore specialist stationed in Grand Rapids, said this week a yearlong update of the agency’s wolf management plan will be completed before any decision is made on renewing wolf hunting and trapping in Minnesota.
A 20-member wolf management advisory group that will begin meeting next month has been formed by the DNR to help with the update. Three group members are from hunting and trapping organizations; three are from livestock associations; three are from wolf advocacy and animal rights groups; five are from conservation, wildlife, local government and education organizations; and six at-large members are unaffiliated with wolf groups.
A wolf-management public opinion survey also has been completed by the University of Minnesota on behalf of the DNR as part of the update, with results expected sometime this spring. The survey, in conjunction with the advisory group’s ideas and recommendations, as well as those of tribal authorities and a technical committee comprising scientists and other wolf experts, will form the bulk of advice the DNR will consider in its new plan.
All of which worries some Minnesota deer hunters, who believe the wide net the DNR is casting for input will undercut their belief that wolf hunting and trapping are necessary to improve whitetail numbers in the northern part of the state.
Claims that winter severity and habitat are the primary factors affecting northern Minnesota deer are incorrect, the hunters say. Winters are less severe now than in the past, they say, and the habitat hasn’t changed significantly.
What’s different, the hunters say, is that wolf numbers have increased significantly in northern Minnesota and, as a result, deer numbers have fallen. Values of northern Minnesota hunting properties also have been negatively affected, the hunters add.
Additionally, some observers believe Walz will put the state in legal jeopardy if he attempts to stop through fiat, directly or indirectly, wolf hunting and trapping after the state regains management authority over the animals.
Like many other wildlife species, the wolf is a regulated game animal in Minnesota, based most recently on establishment of the state’s three hunting and trapping seasons. As such, hunters and trappers have a right, some say, to pursue them, guaranteed by a state constitutional amendment approved in 1998.
On the ballot that year, the proposed amendment read, “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to affirm that hunting and fishing and the taking of game and fish are a valued part of our heritage that shall be forever preserved for the people and shall be managed by law and regulation for the public good?”
Fully 77 % of Minnesota voters checked “Yes.”
Meanwhile, more immediately, if lawsuits are in fact filed after the Fish and Wildlife Service’s wolf delisting is finalized this month, a judge will decide whether to stop the delisting while the case is decided, or whether to allow the delisting to stand until or unless a court decides otherwise.