At its low point in the 1950s, Minnesota’s gray wolf population was estimated to be just 400 animals. As of 2018, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates there are over 2,600 gray wolves in the state.
That recovery is a success story for the Endangered Species Act, a law signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973 that implemented federal protections for a variety of species throughout the U.S.
But people living in areas where wolf populations have recovered aren’t necessarily celebrating that success. As wolf populations increase, so does wolf predation, a concern when the animals target livestock or pets.
Those concerns recently prompted DFL Rep. Collin Peterson and GOP Rep. Pete Stauber, whose respective Seventh and Eighth congressional districts cover most of the wolf range in northern Minnesota, to introduce the Gray Wolf State Management Act of 2019. The one-page bill would remove federal protection from gray wolves in the Great Lakes region of the U.S., allowing states there to set their own wolf policies, including allowing for hunts. That would restore policy from 2011 to 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted Great Lakes gray wolves, removing endangered species protections. During that time, Minnesota had three recreational hunting seasons.
But a federal court ruled Fish and Wildlife’s action violated the Endangered Species Act since in that law there was no provision for selectively delisting a species in a specific region. In the wake of that ruling, wolves were restored to federal protection and no hunts have been conducted.
Peterson’s bill would override that ruling, requiring the interior secretary to re-issue the rule allowing states to manage their wolf populations. “It’s ridiculous that a single judge sitting a thousand miles away from the nearest gray wolf can undermine an entire federal agency and science-driven population surveys,” he argues.
In 1974, one year after the Endangered Species Act was signed into law by President Nixon, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classified gray wolves as an endangered species throughout the country except in Minnesota, where populations were more stable and wolves were classified as threatened.
The intricacies of these designations, as they relate to different states, have been litigated for the last two decades. But the recent fight over gray wolves’ status began in 2011, when Fish and Wildlife delisted gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes from the Endangered Species Act.
“Gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes are recovered and no longer warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act,” acting U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Rowan Gould said in a statement at the time.
From 2011 to 2014, the population was managed by the Minnesota DNR. During that time, Minnesota held three recreational hunts.
But in 2014, the Federal Court of Appeals reversed the administration’s rule change, removing local control and again classifying gray wolves in Minnesota as protected. “When a species is already listed, the service cannot review a single segment with blinders on, ignoring the continuing status of the species’ remnant,” the court’s ruling reads. In other words, gray wolves’ recovery must be looked at as a whole when delisting the species, not just in the Great Lakes region.
Peterson’s bill would buck that ruling and reinstate the 2011 rule change. The bill’s language would require the Secretary of the Interior to reissue the 2011 Fish and Wildlife rule change on gray wolves.
For Stauber, the move is driven by constituent concerns. “A cow is easily worth thousands of dollars, so it is incredibly problematic that our farmers have no legal avenue to protect their livestock should a gray wolf attack,” said Kelsey Mix, Stauber’s Communication’s Director. Under Federal law, wolves can only be killed in defense of a human life. Only government officials are authorized to kill wolves if pets or livestock are threatened, attacked, or killed.
“Our staff has been in contact with a number of concerned constituents, including a rancher living in Pine County who lost 5 calves to gray wolves in recent months.”
The International Wolf Center, which provides educational information about wolf populations, compiled USDA-Wildlife Services data from 1979 to 2017. From about 70 verified complaints annually over the last five years, predation of animals by gray wolves has remained steady. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture provides compensation for animals killed by wolves.
Peterson’s bill is not the only push to change the species listing. Like in years past, Fish and Wildlife under the Trump administration is again trying to delist gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act. But now, instead of arguing that they need to delist a specific segment, the agency is arguing that gray wolves have recovered entirely.
“We propose to list or delist, open a public comment period, gather all available information about the species, and then publish a final rule with our decision, based on the best available science,” Georgia Parham, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told the newspaper.
“We have proposed to delist the gray wolf in the lower 48 states, and have held a public hearing and comment period, but we have not yet a made a final decision on delisting.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service received over 1.8 million comments opposing the proposal. And in May, more than 100 scientists sent a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, asking him to rescind the proposed rule change.
One group opposed to delisting the wolf is the Center for Biological Diversity. Collette Adkins, Carnivore Conservation Director and Senior Attorney for the group, has pledged to challenge delisting measures in court in order to maintain current wolf protections.
“The courts have repeatedly slammed the Fish and Wildlife Service for prematurely removing wolf protections, but the agency has now come back with its most egregious scheme yet,” said Adkins. “Once again, we’ll take it to the courts and do everything we can to stop this illegal effort to kill wolf protections.”
Adkins is similarly opposed to the Gray Wolf State Management Act. “Rep. Peterson’s bill is one of many Republican led attacks on the Endangered Species Act,” she said. “It is unlikely to be successful, as public support for the ESA and wolves remains strong.”
Rep. Betty McCollum, who represents Minnesota’s Fourth District covering St. Paul and the eastern metro, also opposes here colleague’s bill. “If and when the species is delisted, that decision needs to be driven by scientists and other key stakeholders and done in a way that will protect and enhance that balance nationally,” McCollum said.
“It is not Congress’ role to interfere in the process of delisting species – rather, scientific evidence should guide those decisions.”
The Minnesota DNR, which would manage the wolf’s population should that authority be placed again into state control, maintains that the gray wolf will thrive whether or not it is delisted as a threatened species in Minnesota.
“Changes in the legal status of wolves in Minnesota are not expected to have a significant influence on the wolf population in Minnesota. Wolves will remain protected under state law. There are not currently any threats that are reason for concern,” said Dan Stark, Large Carnivore Specialist at the Minnesota DNR.
As for whether or not recreational hunts would return, the answer is unclear. In April, the Minnesota state House voted to ban recreational hunts no matter the gray wolf’s listing, but that bill failed in the Senate.
“I think we need to recognize first that wolf recovery has been wildly successful and celebrate the fact that the future of the wolf in MN is secure,” said Stark. “Although a wolf season could be a possibility in the future it is separate from whether the wolf population in Minnesota has recovered.”
The DNR adopted a state plan in anticipation that the wolves would be delisted in the early 2000s, and Stark said they are currently in the process of updating that plan over the next 18 to 24 months.
“Minnesota’s wolf population has exceeded the thresholds considered recovered under the ESA for several decades and will continue to thrive even when ESA protections are removed.”
In 2018, Peterson echoed this sentiment and said that despite past disagreements, he believes that a return to state management by the DNR is the way to proceed.
“I have very seldom got along with the DNR in Minnesota. This is one time where they were doing the right thing,” Peterson said on the House floor in 2018. “They did a good job, and the court stopped them.
“We got a lot of extra wolves. And we will send them to your district and we’ll let them eat your fancy little dogs and we’ll see how long that goes before your constituents demand that you do something about it.”