By Matthew Brown and John Flesher
BILLINGS, Mont. — U.S. wildlife officials plan to lift protections for gray wolves across the Lower 48 states, reigniting the legal battle over a predator that’s running into conflicts with farmers and ranchers as its numbers rebound in some regions.
The proposal would give states the authority to hold wolf hunting and trapping seasons. It was announced March 6 by acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt at a wildlife conference in Denver.
Wolves had previously lost federal protections in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, where hunters and trappers now kill hundreds of the animals annually.
Lifting protections for gray wolves across most of the country would force Wisconsin wildlife officials to re-start wolf hunts.
Then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, signed a bill in 2012 that requires the Department of Natural Resources to hold a wolf hunt. The agency held three hunts before a federal judge placed Great Lakes wolves back on the endangered species list in 2014. The law remains valid, which means the DNR would have to reinstate the season if protections are lifted. Wildlife advocates have promised to challenge in court any attempt to lift protections.
The DNR estimated as many as 944 wolves roamed the state last winter.
Wildlife advocates and some members of Congress reacted with outrage to the latest proposal and promised to challenge any final decision in court.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now with the group Defenders of Wildlife, warned of an “all-out war on wolves” if the plan advances.
“We don’t have any confidence that wolves will be managed like other wildlife,” she said.
But government officials countered that the recovery of wolves from widespread extermination last century has worked and they no longer need the Endangered Species Act to shield them.
“Recovery of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act is one of our nation’s great conservation successes, with the wolf joining other cherished species, such as the bald eagle, that have been brought back from the brink,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Gavin Shire said in an emailed statement.
Agriculture groups and lawmakers from Western states are likely to support the administration’s proposal.
Further details were expected during a formal announcement planned in coming days.
Long despised by farmers and ranchers, wolves were shot, trapped and poisoned out of existence in most of the U.S. by the mid-20th century.
They received endangered species protections in 1975, when there were about 1,000 left, only in northern Minnesota. Now more than 5,000 of the animals live in the contiguous U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials disclosed to the AP last year that another scientific review of the animal’s status had been launched.
Shire declined to disclose the agency’s rationale for determining the species had recovered, but said members of the public would have a chance to comment before a final decision in coming months.
Ryan Yates, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, applauded the federal agency’s plan and said many farmers and ranchers have lost livestock to wolf kills since the species was granted legal protections. The farmers and ranchers will respect state regulations aimed at managing wolf populations, he said.
“Some people like them, some people don’t, but the law’s the law,” Yates said.
Lawmakers in Congress frustrated with court rulings maintaining protections for wolves have backed legislation to forcibly strip protections in the Great Lakes region and beyond. A similar effort by lawmakers ended protections for Northern Rockies wolves.
U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said in a March 6 news release he was pleased with the proposed rule changes but would like to see more done. Johnson has worked to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list in the western Great Lakes region since 2015. He recently introduced an amendment to the Natural Resources Management Act to allow three Western Great Lakes states and Wyoming to develop pack management plans.
“The only way to avoid legal wrangling and provide a clear resolution for Wisconsin is to pass legislation to allow the state to move forward with a wolf population management plan,” Johnson said. “My bill to do so has bipartisan support, and I will continue to press my colleagues to act on this important issue.
“Once the Fish and Wildlife Service publishes the proposed rule and opens a public comment period, I expect hundreds of Wisconsinites will share their personal views, along with thousands of others nationwide, in support of the government’s new delisting effort.”
The Country Today contributed to this report.