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Federal plan to remove wolf protections to open for public comment

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service on Wednesday said it will make good on a promise made last June to delist wolves across the lower 48 states, removing Engendered Species Act protections. Courtesy of Michigan Technological University

The U.S. Interior Department on Thursday, March 14, said it will publish its plan to remove federal protections for wolves in the Federal Register Friday, giving the public until mid-May to comment on the proposal.

The plan, first promised last June and announced again last week, would have the most impact on Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan where established populations of wolves currently exist but where a court order has retained Endangered Species Act Protections for them.

The federal plan, developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in recent months, would “delist” wolves across all the contiguous U.S., even where they do not exist, although acts of Congress already removed federal protections for Rocky Mountain and other western wolves.

Comments on the plan must be made within 60 days of publication — by May 14. Information on the plan, called a federal rule, along with instructions on how to comment, can be found at fws.gov/home/wolfrecovery.

Livestock farmers and some hunting groups support ending federal protections for wolves, saying the animals have become too numerous and their numbers need to be culled to reduce wolf-human conflicts.

Wolf supporters say that, while the animals are indeed thriving in the upper Great Lakes region, state agencies moved too fast to kill too many wolves once federal protections were withdrawn in 2012. Critics also note that wolves have not recovered across a broad portion of their original range, in more states, as the federal Endangered Species Act appears to call for.

The Fish & Wildlife Service, part of the U.S. Interior Department, has tried multiple times — through the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations — to delist wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, saying the big predators have fully recovered here after brushing with extinction in the 1960s and 1970s.

The most recent delisting efforts, in 2012, allowed state agencies to hold wolf trapping and hunting seasons for three years until late 2014 when a federal judge ruled that the agency had erred in taking wolves off the endangered list too soon. That decision was upheld in 2017 by a federal appeals court decision, keeping wolves protected across the region to this point.

The Trump administration says it will take its turn at developing a broader wolf proposal that will hold up in court.

“The facts are clear and indisputable — the gray wolf no longer meets the definition of a threatened or endangered species. Today the wolf is thriving on its vast range and it is reasonable to conclude it will continue to do so in the future,” said David Bernhardt, acting U.S. Secretary of the Interior, in a statement Thursday. “Today’s action puts us one step closer to transitioning the extraordinary effort that we have invested in gray wolf recovery to other species who actually need the protections of the Endangered Species Act, leaving the states to carry on the legacy of wolf conservation.”

Critics responded quickly Thursday.

“The Trump administration is attempting to sign a death warrant for America’s gray wolves,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “This undemocratic and cowardly proposal would lead to the slaughter of wolves across the country and undo decades of recovery progress. But we’ll fight as hard as we can to stop that from happening.”

The proposal would not impact Mexican gray wolves, which are listed separately under the Endangered Species Act.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates about 2,850 wolves in the state, by far the most of any outside Alaska. The Wisconsin DNR estimates just under 1,000 with more than 500 estimated in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.