Future wolf hunting and trapping seasons in the Upper Midwest are on hold after a judge ruled the Obama Administration erred in removing the top predator from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) last month. The ruling came nearly three years after the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service dropped federal protections for the so-called Great Lakes’ wolf population. Since then hunters and trappers have killed 1,599 wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
Federal judge Beryl Howell ruled that the removal of the species in the region was “arbitrary and capricious” and violated the ESA.
Her ruling affects gray wolf populations (Canis lupus) in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan but not those out West, which were removed from the ESA by a legislative rider—the only species to ever be removed in such a way.
Since wolves were delisted from the Great Lakes region in 2012, all three states have held hunting seasons, although Michigan has only held one. In all, 22 wolves were killed in Michigan, 654 in Wisconsin, and 923 in Minnesota. Most of the wolves were killed by trappers and most of the animals were under two years of age, since younger—less experienced—wolves are more likely to fall victim to traps and guns.
In all, there are around 3,700 wolves in the Great Lakes region, the bulk of them in Minnesota which was the only state in the lower 48 to retain wolves after the species was killed off elsewhere as pests during the 19th and 20th Centuries.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called the ruling “a significant step backward.”
Gray wolf in Wyoming’s Lamar Valley. Photo by: Mike Cline.
“The science clearly shows that wolves are recovered in the Great Lakes region, and we believe the Great Lakes states have clearly demonstrated their ability to effectively manage their wolf populations,” spokesperson Gavin Shire said.
However, critics argue that states have been overzealous in their hunting and trapping seasons, a number of which have gone over quotas. Judge Howell specifically criticized states for having portions of their states with no limits on wolf hunting and culling. She also took the federal government to task for delisting the wolf when it had not recovered across much of the suitable habitat over its historic range.
After being nearly driven to extinction in the lower 48, the gray wolf was listed under the ESA in 1978 and began to recover slowly, including populations moving south from Canada, outward from northern Minnesota, and reintroductions of packs in Yellowstone National Park. Today, there are around 6,000 gray wolves in the lower 48 including in western states like Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Individuals and small populations have also been spotted in Washington, Oregon, and California. But the gray’s wolf’s dispersal has not been easy: the first wolf in Iowa was quickly shot dead when confused for a coyote, moreover experts recently believe that the first wolf to return to the Grand Canyon has been killed—also confused for a coyote.
As top predators, wolves play a massive ecological role. By keeping prey species in check—and lording it over other, smaller predators like coyotes—wolves have been shown to impact everything from forest regrowth to stream health. For example, the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park allowed the resurgence of forest, the return of beavers, and an uptick in overall biodiversity.
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