Gray wolf back in spotlight

Clint Riese
Forest Lake Times, Sports Editor

The gray wolf has been a lightning rod since gaining federal protection as an endangered species in 1974. The US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) attempted on three occasions in the previous decade alone to have the gray wolf delisted as its population stabilized. Each time, lawsuits from environmental groups led to the protections staying in place.

Two recent developments have the gray wolf back on the front burner in conservation circles. On April 11, state officials learned that Congress cut all funding for Minnesota’s Wolf Predation Management program through a March appropriations bill. Among other things, the wolf control funds are used by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to respond to complaints of wolves attacking livestock or pets.

Wildlife Science Center Executive Director Peggy Callahan handles a newly arrived gray wolf at the Columbus, MN facility last year. The Wildlife Science Center is home to many of the animals, which for now remain classified as threatened in Minnesota.

Then on April 15, the USFWS announced its latest effort to get this region’s gray wolves delisted from the Endangered Species Act. The formal proposal was announced this week by the U.S. Department of the Interior and kicked off a public comment period. The proposal’s goal is to transfer the management of the species from the federal level to the individual states.

The Delisting Battle
As a longtime supporter of delisting the gray wolf, Peggy Callahan greets the latest campaign with a healthy dose of caution. The executive director of the Wildlife Science Center in Columbus has been down this road before.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve popped a bottle of champagne,” she said.

The delisting of the gray wolf – one of over a dozen wild animals housed at the center – would be a validation of a successful reintroduction program that started in the mid-1990s and has grown the state’s population to nearly 3,000. That figure is nearly double the threshold required under the Endangered Species Act to ensure long-term survival.

However, there is a reason that delisting has yet to take permanent effect. In lawsuits, critics have argued that while the gray wolf has recovered well in Minnesota, it still occupies just 5 percent of its historic range in the contiguous United States. Opponents of delisting also maintain that the breeding population is still too small to be considered stable.

Callahan and many who work in the field would have no hesitation about removing the gray wolf’s threatened status in the state.

“Wolves are going to do just fine in Minnesota,” Callahan said.

Dan Stark, a wolf specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, agrees.

“Certainly, there’s the biological evidence to support delisting,” he said. “We have exceeded recovery objectives for Minnesota and the western Great Lake states for more than a decade now.”

Anticipating delisting, the state DNR from 1998-2001 developed a Wolf Management Plan that spells out steps to safeguard the gray wolf population for five years following the species’ removal from federal protection.

Stark, who would be among the key figures in implementing the plan, feels it is suffice. He points out that the plan was essentially up and running during an 18-month window in 2007-08 in which the gray wolf was delisted before a court decision reversed the action.

The plan splits the state into two wolf management zones. In the one which holds 80 percent of the wolf population, the state protection would be nearly as strict as the current federal law. Wolves are not desired in the other zone and under the plan could be killed there to protect domestic animals. Public hunting or trapping would not be allowed in either zone during the five-year period.

“The state’s ready to manage wolves and has a good plan in place that addresses the long-term issue of wolves in Minnesota,” Stark said.

Once the USFWS publishes its intentions, the public will have 60 days to comment in writing. A public hearing will also be held May 18 in Ashland, WI. The matter is expected to be be decided upon by the end of the year.

“We have seen a noticeable increase in the number of wolves in Minnesota and now we have to turn our attention to restoring balance to the natural habitat,” said U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “I’m glad this process is moving forward and I look forward to ultimately removing the wolf from the Endangered Species Act list in the next few months.”

Management Funds Cut
The wolf controversy has always centered on the rare junction where humans and the wild animals come into conflict.

While it is illegal for members of the public to shoot or trap gray wolves, a program has long been in place to deal with complaints from farmers and ranchers who may have lost livestock to wolf predation. The duty to investigate such incidents traditionally fell to the Wildlife Services division of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The funding for the Wolf Predation Management Program in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan went out the window this spring. Congress in March passed a series of appropriations to keep the government running. According to USDA spokesperson Matt Herrick, the sixth such bill included the elimination of earmarks, one of which just happened to be for USDA funds.

“We are still analyzing the impact of this program elimination,” Herrick said. “There will be an impact to employees who work on these programs as well as to local communities, and we pledge to treat all affected parties with compassion and fairness.”

The earmark would have included $208,000 for wolf predation work in Minnesota.

The state provides $100,000 in annual funding to reimburse those who have lost animals to wolves. However, May is the peak month for such incidents as cattle are calving, and without the extra funds there may not be enough to go around this year.

Callahan described the elimination of the funding as ludicrous.
“Right now there is no one to help farmers identify what killed their livestock or help control them,” she said. “You’re dooming the situation here in Minnesota if farmers can’t do anything because the [Endangered Species Act] is still in place.”

Klobuchar recently urged U.S. Agriculture Department Secretary Tom Vilsack to find funding to support the Wolf Predation Management Program.

The same federal budget package which eliminated the earmark also included a rider which delisted the gray wolf in several Western states.

The move has angered environmentalists who fear the unprecedented involvement of Congress will lead to future meddling with the Endangered Species Act.

Callahan’s biggest concern with that legislation, however, regards the safety of the wolves. Like in Minnesota, she feels the gray wolf population will be fine. However, the bill also delists Mexican gray wolves.

“The frustrating thing for me is that it is such a carte blanche piece which includes Mexican and gray wolves,” she said.

Significant funding has been put into protecting the Mexican wolf and this move, in Callahan’s opinion, jeopardizes that effort.

“It’s premature,” she said. “It really is.”

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