A coalition of hunting groups, led by the Sportsmen’s Alliance, petitioned on Thursday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove gray wolves in the upper Midwest from the Endangered Species Act. But in a surprise move, a related petition recommends special management consideration for wolves that roam in Western states outside the core Rocky Mountain region, where wolves are already delisted.
The two-pronged petition addresses courts’ concerns that the wholesale loss of federal protections isn’t in the long-term interest of wolf populations expanding to California, Oregon, and Washington.
The first petition, co-signed by Michigan Bear Hunters Association, Upper Peninsula Bear Houndsmen Association, and Wisconsin Bear Hunters Association, is intended to force courts to recognize the recovery of wolves in the Western Great Lakes states. Populations of gray wolves in the Upper Midwest, defined as a distinct population segment, or DPS, by the USFWS, have vastly exceed federal recovery goals, points out Todd Adkins, vice president of government affairs at the Sportsmen’s Alliance.
“The total population [of the Great Lakes population segment] now exceeds 4,000 wolves,” he says. “This includes estimates of 2,700 wolves in Minnesota, 1,000 in Wisconsin, and more than 600 in Michigan.”
USFWS’ original recovery goals for the species was 1,400 for Minnesota and a minimum combined population of 100 wolves for Michigan and Wisconsin together. In all three states, wildlife managers estimate that wolves occupy nearly all suitable habitat throughout their range.
The Service has delisted the Western Great Lakes DPS numerous times in the past. In October 2020, the Trump Administration returned management of wolves in both the Great Lakes and Rockies to states and tribes. The delisting of the Great Lakes population was later overturned by a federal judge.
But Adkins notes that courts’ decisions over delisting stemmed, not over population concerns, but rather “due to FWS’ failure to address ‘remnant’ wolves that exist outside of established population segments like the Western Great Lakes and Northern Rocky Mountains. The concern repeatedly raised by federal judges is that delisting the WGL DPS could remove protections for remnant wolves elsewhere in the country.”
The second petition lodged by the hunting groups recognizes the courts’ order, and requests that the USFWS create a West Coast Wolf (WCW) distinct population segment consisting of the partially recovered and rapidly growing wolf populations outside the Rockies, specifically in northern California, eastern Oregon, and northeastern Washington.
“The coalition recommends that this newly established WCW DPS be listed at the threatened level, thereby downlisting this population from endangered status, providing maximum flexibility to state wildlife managers,” says Adkins. “Assigning this remnant population into a new DPS will provide FWS with much needed flexibility going forward.
“Second, our petition asks that FWS create a ‘non DPS’ consisting of all wolves in the lower 48 states that are not otherwise included in an established DPS. This will mean that all wolves outside of a DPS will continue to be protected under the ESA as endangered under the original 1978 listing.”
Adkins says that the collective purpose of the two petitions creates a “clear pathway for USFWS to recognize wolf recovery where it has taken place while continuing to ensure management flexibility under the endangered species act for remnant wolves in the West and throughout the country. Granting the requests within the two petitions in tandem also would align FWS’ approach with federal court rulings in a number of cases over several years.”
“These two petitions are following a blueprint established by the federal courts on gray wolves and the ESA,” says Adkins. “Instead of a quick fix, this is a long-term strategy to get wolf management back in the state agencies where it belongs instead of locked up in litigation brought by the extremists to keep their fund-raising juggernaut running full steam.”
“Michigan’s gray wolves have exceeded recovery goals for over two decades now and it’s far past time to give our state’s professional wildlife managers the authority they need to make the best science-based decisions for both the animals and residents that call our state home,” added Michigan Bear Hunters Association president Keith Shafer. “Michigan’s recently updated Wolf Management Plan, crafted with input from all stakeholders, shows we’re ready and able to take over that responsibility today, to ensure gray wolves are sustainably managed for generations to come like all of our other wildlife.”
USFWS has 90 days to respond that the petition is “warranted” or “not warranted.” If warranted, the federal agency will craft a rule, then open it to a predictably contentious public comment period.
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