Wolf Conservation photo

Legislation that would remove gray wolves from the federal endangered-species list in four states—three of which are in the Great Lakes area—is currently moving through Congress. If passed, the legislation would allow these states to manage their own wolf populations and would potentially open the door for hunting.

According to MLive, on Feb. 26, the House of Representatives passed the Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement (SHARE) Act, which would remove the gray wolf from the protection of the Endangered Species Act in four states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Wyoming. The Senate is currently considering the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act of 2016, a companion bill that would similarly de-list wolves in those states.

The proposed legislation is an amendment to the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act, added by Wyoming Senator John Barrasso. In a statement, Barrasso said that, in addition to delisting the gray wolf in his state and others, the bill “protects that delisting from further judicial review similar to the judicial protections granted by Congress to Montana and Idaho.”

The amendment could prevent the passage of the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act, which has been debated in Congress for the past six years. Prior to Barrasso’s amendment, conservation groups, such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, praised the bill. When the bill passed out of committee, in January, Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP, called it “an important step toward improving habitat and access.” Fosburgh said that his group was “pleased to see that conservation has support in the Senate at a critical time for our nation’s land and water, and fish and wildlife resources.”

Now, though, the TRCP questions the amendment and whether the Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act should delist wolves in those four states. According to Outdoornews.com, Steve Kline, the director of government relations for TRCP, said, “In the context of this bill, I don’t think it’s a great addition.” He said his organization agrees that states should manage species once they’ve met their delisting criteria, but the group has “generally opposed, though, congressional meddling at the species level.”

In a follow-up statement to Field & Stream, Steve Kline says, “We think delisting of the wolf in Wyoming and the Great Lakes is a sensible step forward, but the issue is controversial and is one of several provisions, although certainly not the only addition, that complicates the way forward for the underlying Sportsmen’s Act.” The TRCP has since supported the wolf delisting amendment to the House sportsmen’s bill, the SHARE Act, a spokesperson adds.

Representative Dan Benishek, a Republican from Crystal Falls, Michigan, who backed the House bill, said in a statement that the wolf population is above the recommended number needed for recovery and has had a negative impact on other species as well as livestock. Benisheck said, “[The] amendment was based on valuable input from both Michigan and federal official in order to use sound science to responsibly manage the wolf population while also meeting the needs of local communities.”

The gray wolf was first added to the endangered-species list in 1974, but this is far from the first time that officials have tried to remove it. In the past fifteen years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tried to delist the Great Lakes population four times. Their most recent attempt, in 2012, was overturned by a 2014 ruling, in which federal judge Beryl Howell noted that the delisting was “arbitrary and capricious” in its violation of the Endangered Species Act.

During the two years in which the gray wolf was not protected under the Endangered Species Act, however, three states held wolf hunting or trapping seasons. For instance, in 2014, MLive reported that 23 wolves were killed during a state-managed hunt in Michigan. Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources set a 43-wolf limit for three areas in the Upper Peninsula where wolf activity was deemed a problem, issuing 1,200 licenses for the 45-day hunt.

The debate over the gray wolf is not solely a political issue, though: Scientists are also not in agreement on the gray wolf’s status in the region. In November of last year, wolf biologist Adrian Wydeven and his colleague David Mech wrote a letter to federal officials suggesting that wolves in the Great Lakes area be again removed from the endangered-species list. They claimed that wolves in the region had exceeded the population threshold for delisting for more than fifteen years. By the end of that month, though, a group of nearly 30 scientists penned their own opposing letter in response, claiming that wolves within specific geographical regions should not be delisted when the greater population is still endangered. John Vucetich, a co-author of the letter, argued that factors such as habitat size must be kept in mind when considering the delisting of the species.

A 2014 count by the FWS showed a total population of 3,722 wolves in the western Great Lakes states. Of those, 2,423 were in Minnesota, with the difference split roughly between Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. According to the FWS, the recovery goals are to have 1,250 to 1,400 wolves in Minnesota and 100 or more in both Wisconsin and Michigan, with those numbers being maintained for a minimum of five consecutive years. Minnesota has purportedly met those numbers since the late 1970s, while the populations in Michigan and Wisconsin reached theirs in the winter of 1993–1994.

File photograph courtesy of USFWS/Flickr