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Wolf management shifts to states after delisting

Written by
The Associated Press
and Wausau Daily Herald

After devoting four decades and tens of millions of dollars to saving the gray wolf, the federal government wants to get out of the wolf-protection business, leaving it to individual states — and the wolves themselves — to determine the future of the legendary predator.

The Obama administration Wednesday declared more than 4,000 wolves in the upper Midwest have recovered from widespread extermination and will be removed from the endangered species list. That includes more than 750 wolves now living in Wisconsin — more than double the state Department of Natural Resources’ population goal of 350, DNR mammalian ecologist Adrian Wydeven said Wednesday.

Coupled with an earlier move that lifted protections in five western states, the decision puts the gray wolf at a historical crossroads — one that could test both its reputation for resilience and the tolerance of ranchers and hunters who bemoan its attacks on livestock and big game.

Wednesday’s announcement could open the door to hunting for wolves in the Great Lakes. However, a wolf hunting season in Wisconsin would require legislative approval and support from the DNR’s Natural Resources Board, accompanied by several public hearings, said Kurt Thiede, administrator for the DNR’s Lands and Program Management Division.

The legal shield that made it a federal crime to gun down the wolves is being lifted in many areas even though wolves have returned only to isolated pockets of the territories they once occupied, and increasing numbers are dying at the hands of hunters, wildlife agents and ranchers protecting livestock.

“What we’ve been unable to do, when we have depredation and folks losing livestock or who had livestock harassed, we’ve not had the ability to control (wolves) lethally,” Thiede said. “Now, we have that authority.”

Shifting wolves to state management means farmers can apply for permits to shoot wolves if they have recurring depredation problems. Farmers also can shoot a wolf attacking livestock, though the DNR must be contacted within 24 hours of the incident, Thiede said.

Since being added to the federal endangered species list in 1974, the American wolf population has grown fivefold — to about 6,200 animals wandering parts of 10 states outside Alaska.

DNR officials said Wednesday it is the wolves’ wandering — not a conscious effort to reintroduce the species into Wisconsin — that is responsible for the Wisconsin population explosion. Wydeven said state wildlife officials moved problem wolves around within the state from farms to national forests and other areas because they had no authority to kill wolves.

Thiede added that the DNR has tried to dispel the perception that it was involved in reintroducing wolves to the state, but he said the next phase of discussion should not be about the past, but about moving forward.

“The news coming (Wednesday) basically confirms what we know — wolves have recovered and it’s time to manage our own population,” he said.

Wolves “are in the best position they’ve been in for the past 100 years,” said David Mech, a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul, Minn., and a leading wolf expert. The animals’ long-term survival will “depend on how much wild land remains available, because wolves are not compatible with areas that are agricultural and have a lot of humans. There’s just too much conflict.”

North America was once home to as many as a couple of million gray wolves, which are prolific breeders. But by the 1930s, fur traders, bounty hunters and government agents had poisoned, trapped and shot almost all wolves outside Canada and Alaska.

The surviving 1,200 were clustered in northern Minnesota in the 1970s. After the species was added to the endangered list, their numbers rocketed to nearly 3,000 in the state — and they gradually spread elsewhere.

Today, Wisconsin has about 782 wolves and Michigan 687 — far above what biologists said were sustainable populations.

The success story is hardly surprising in woodlands teeming with deer, said John Vucetich, a biologist at Michigan Tech University. But even in such an ideal setting, the wolves were able to return only when killing them became illegal.

“What do wolves need to survive?” Vucetich said. “They need forest cover, and they need prey. And they need not to be shot.”

Shooting already is happening — legally or not — as adventurous wolves range into new regions such as Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.