MILWAUKEE_A federal judge on Friday struck down the federal government’s decision to remove gray wolves in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan from the endangered species list.
The decision immediately restores all protections to the wolves in Wisconsin, which recently ended its third hunting and trapping season of the animals.
The suit was brought by the Humane Society of the United States.
“It’s a great victory for wolves and wolf conservation,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, the group’s senior vice-president and chief counsel. “We felt all along that federal protection should never have been removed.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed federal protections for gray wolves in 2012 and turned over management _ and decisions on how to control their burgeoning populations _ to states.
But for years before the decision, as their population grew, wolves have been thrust into a contentious tug-of-war over the appropriate level of protection for the animals.
U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington, D.C., ruled that the removal was “arbitrary and capricious” and violates the federal Endangered Species Act.
In her ruling, Howell wrote: “Wolves are the subject of heated disputes, with those on every side of the issue offering heartfelt arguments as to how best to manage this unique species. The last decade of litigation is a testament to those passions.”
Howell said that while the Fish and Wildlife Service and others may have “practical policy reasons” for removing protections for wolves, federal regulations protecting endangered species trump those concerns.
“At times, a court must lean forward from the bench to let an agency know, in no uncertain terms, that enough is enough,” Howell wrote in the decision. “This case is one of those times.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources declined to comment Friday as they reviewed the decision.
An appeal of the decision is possible.
As a practical matter, the decision shelves state-managed hunting and trapping of wolves in the Great Lakes region. It also prohibits states from using lethal means to control wolves around depredation sites such as farms, and bars federal animal control agents from killing problem wolves.
Ralph Fritsch of Townsend in Oconto County, a hunter and longtime member of many state conservation organizations, said he feared the ruling would increase illegal killing of wolves.
“I think the state was doing a good job,” Fritsch said. “Now, a judge from out-of-state has made a decision that could make things worse for wolves. People in northern Wisconsin with low tolerance for wolves might handle it themselves, outside the law.”
A 2014 public attitude survey of state residents found generally good support for the current level of wolf numbers in the state, but lower levels of support in “wolf range” than outside of it. The lowest levels of support for wolves were found among deer hunters and farmers.
“It was a mistake to prematurely strip away protections for wolves in the Great Lakes region and now that wrong is being righted,” said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These wolves still need federal protection and this decision will help put them back on the long road to recovery.”
Wisconsin’s 2014 wolf hunting and trapping season ended Dec. 5 with 154 wolves killed, four above the statewide harvest quota established by the Natural Resources Board.
The two previous seasons also ended slightly over the quotas. In the state’s inaugural regulated wolf hunting and trapping season, 117 wolves were killed, one more than the quota, and in 2013 the kill was 257 wolves, six higher than the goal.
The state had expressed a management goal of “putting downward pressure on the wolf population” through hunting and trapping and removal of wolves at depredation sites.
Following two seasons of regulated wolf hunting and trapping, Wisconsin had at least 660 wolves in late winter 2013-’14, down from an estimated high of 834 in 2012, according to the DNR.
The wolf population roughly doubles after pups are born in spring, then begins to decline because of various sources of mortality.
The re-listing comes as Wisconsin officials are working to update the state’s wolf management plan. A draft plan is scheduled for release in January. The operating plan was written in 1999. It’s not clear if the DNR will alter the plan based on Friday’s ruling.
The lawsuit was filed in early 2013 and no party anticipated Friday’s news.
The Humane Society’s Lovvorn said the court’s decision well describes the problems with the wolf management plans enacted by Wisconsin and other states in the Great Lakes region.
“The delisting gave state agencies the opportunity to prove they could responsibly manage and conserve this species,” Lovvorn said. “We argued they failed miserably and the court agreed.”
Instead of measures to “conserve the species, they emphasized aggressive programs of trapping and sport hunting to drive numbers down,” Lovvorn said.
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