It’s not exactly news that the saga of Minnesota’s wolf population and its management has been long and controversy-filled. The gray wolf—an animal Minnesotans once called the eastern timber wolf—has experienced an image flip that elevated it from a mid-20th century status not much higher than “varmint,” to enshrinement and protection as a symbol of wilderness.
The latest chapter is playing out this year, as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) in mid-July ended a 120-day public comment period on a March 2019 proposal to remove the gray wolf from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife; or—as it’s commonly known—the endangered species list. What is supposed to happen next is that USFWS reviews and weighs the public’s comments, and decides whether it will move forward with the proposal, perhaps modifying or potentially even withdrawing it.
If the history of proposed federal regulations offers any clues to the outcome, the probability would be strong that USFWS would move forward with its plans to “delist” the gray wolf. When federal regulations are proposed, they usually express a firm position of the regulators on the issue at hand.
Of course, these particular regulations are anything but usual. The gray wolf is a creature that—were it human—would be said to have a cult following. At a recent public hearing held by the USFWS in Brainerd, Minnesota, roughly 350 people attended.
There were rural farmers and ranchers in attendance, people whose livestock has been—or could be—a predation target of the gray wolf. There were people whose motivation is a love of Nature and its diversity of wild creatures, some of whom are sufficiently committed that they would be called activists. There were sportsmen and women, elected officials and Native American tribal members. There was also a rally held at a local park prior to the meeting, organized by opponents of delisting the gray wolf.
With most creatures, removal from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife would likely hinge entirely—or at least mostly—on biology-based evidence of abundance and survivability. But that’s not all that is in play with the gray wolf. It is also, perhaps even primarily, about the expectation of what comes next if the gray wolf is removed from this list.
Many expect “what comes next” would include hunting and trapping. There is certainly reason to expect this. Some may not remember, but in 2011 the USFWS took the gray wolf off the endangered list, allowing states like Minnesota to manage the gray wolf population, including harvest by hunting or trapping to maintain their numbers at a stable and reasonable level. In the gray wolf’s case, one reason to do so would be to minimize conflict with humans. Conflict typically means loss of livestock or pets. With a population that had remained stable at about 2,600, limited hunting and trapping were allowed in 2012 through 2014, with an average of roughly 300 harvested in each of those years.
A court challenge in 2014 ended in a ruling that forced the USFWS to put the gray wolf in the Western Great Lakes Region back on the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. Five years later, USFWS has come to the same conclusion it arrived at in 2011; that the gray wolf is not endangered here. USFWS operated under a Democratic president in 2011, and operates under a Republican president now, making it seem unlikely that the delisting proposal is entirely politically motivated.
Delisting should not be taken to imply that other states—like Wisconsin or Michigan, for example—will ever have as many gray wolves as Minnesota. That was not the objective of the Endangered Species Act. Those states, as Minnesota-like as they are in some locales, do not have the wolf habitat or the human population distribution patterns that would be necessary to make that possible.
Minnesota’s gray wolf population is now estimated by the USFWS at roughly 2,800, more than the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimated in those years when it authorized limited gray wolf harvest. While 2,800 wolves may not sound like a lot, two things should be remembered. One is that much of Minnesota is not wolf habitat; not the farm country to the west and south, nor the suburbs and exurbs that lie beyond the boundaries of our state’s population centers. Two, there are always far fewer individual creatures at the top of the food chain than there are individual prey creatures. There will always be far fewer wolves than whitetail deer where these species are found together, just as there will always be far fewer muskies than perch in lakes where they coexist.
To some it seems clear that the argument over delisting the gray wolf is far more about preventing its being hunted or trapped—on general principles—than about the likelihood that its numbers will dwindle if it is delisted and limited hunting or trapping are allowed. Whether the gray wolf is ultimately delisted almost became a moot point in the last session of the Minnesota Legislature. The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed by a one-vote margin a bill to forbid gray wolf recreational hunting seasons in Minnesota.
The Republican-controlled Senate did not do likewise, and when House and Senate reached a compromise on natural resources and environmental policy, the wolf hunting ban was absent. Democratic Governor Tim Walz had previously declared that he favored removing the gray wolf from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. However, he later declared that he would sign the hunting season ban if the Legislature passed it; these two positions—if not actual deception —some might find a convenient splitting of hairs.
Where this will end is not clear. Even if the USFWS removes the gray wolf from “the list,” and if the Minnesota Legislature does not take up a hunting and trapping ban in the future, there is pressure that a Governor can bring to bear against state agencies under their control. DNR Commissioners do, after all, serve at the pleasure of the Governor, and Commissioners can be expected to influence regulations that their agency issues; including the seasons those regulations authorize.
Then, too—if the gray wolf is delisted—there is always the possibility that another sympathetic court may do what was done in 2014, and force the USFWS to put it back on the protected list. Just last week, the USFWS issued a statement that the grizzly bear in the Greater Yellowstone Region will go back on the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, after USFWS had declared in 2017 that this population had recovered, and was no longer endangered. Why? A Montana district court declared that USFWS must do so.
So much for knowing who will decide what is endangered!