By Nathan Bergstedt Grand Rapids Herald-Review
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week that it will publish the final delisting rule on Wednesday, Dec. 28, for the gray wolf in Minnesota and the Western Great Lakes region. The wolf will then be officially taken off the federal Endangered Species list 30 days after the published rule. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) will then be responsible for wolf management in the state.
This will be the third time in the past decade that the gray wolf will have been delisted. Previous attempts were overturned after legal challenges to the delisting were brought forth, both times having to do with procedural technicalities. The gray wolf is considered a success story of the Endangered Species Act, with current populations more than double the goal set by the recovery plan. There are currently about 3,000 gray wolves in Minnesota: the largest population in the lower 48 states.
The gray wolf has been on the Endangered Species list since 1974, when it was estimated that the wolf population was as low as 750. It was classified as ‘endangered’ until 1978, at which time it was reclassified as ‘threatened.’ The ‘threatened’ status remains to this day.
Because of the thriving and stable population in Minnesota, wolf specialists with the DNR and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have noted there is no biological reason not to delist the gray wolf.
Management of the species would then be left up to the state.
“Minnesota’s wolf population has been above federal recovery goals for our state since 1989. Our management plan will ensure the long-term survival of this species,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr.
One of the largest changes with the transference of regulation from the federal level to the state would be that landowners could shoot a wolf that was threatening pets or livestock. Under federal protection, the only case wherein an individual can shoot a wolf is if it is an immediate threat to human life.
Another potential change would be the creation of a wolf hunting season. State regulations required a five year wait period after delisting before a hunting season could be considered. But this past summer, the Minnesota legislature eliminated the wait period, meaning a wolf hunting season could theoretically be established by the fall of 2012.
State House and Senate Natural Resource Committee representatives were unavailable for comment on the removal of the waiting period.
According to DNR Wolf Management Specialist Dan Stark, any potential wolf season will probably be further off than a year, if for no other reason than the process of creating guidelines and regulations for the season. The DNR is currently working on a wolf season plan. Once completed, it will have to pass the legislature, and be subjected to public discussion.
The DNR wolf management plan was created in 2000, which required the five year wait on hunting consideration. If delisted at that time, a wolf season could have been created as early as 2005.
If approved, Minnesota would join Alaska, Idaho, and Montana in the list of states where wolves are legally hunted. Stark noted how any future wolf harvest would be incorporated into the DNR’s wolf management plan.
In a press release from the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn., Executive Director Mary Ortiz said that the “option of hunting is the most hotly debated issue at the moment,” though she continued “but what’s missing in the conversation… is the issue of wildlands and habitat preservation.”
Throughout the time that the gray wolf population has grown, so has its territory. Whereas this is a positive in terms of the success of the species’ recovery, questions are still in the air as to how to maintain steady wolf populations in the long-term as human development slowly encroaches on the wild tracts the wolf calls home.
Human safety is also a concern. As short as 20 years ago, wildlife biologists thought it unthinkable to find wolves within the city limits of Duluth and other northern Minnesota cities. But over the past several years, they have been discovered wandering within these populated areas.
But in the coming months, it will be the possibility of a wolf hunting season that will attract the most attention, from those both for and against wolf hunting.