The Battle to Protect Gray Wolves Continues in the Midwest

Gray wolves, a mighty canidae species that roam the vast territories of North America, are currently facing an uncertain future.

In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (USDOI) removed the federal protections for gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes region. They argued that the roughly 6,000 wolves that lived in the region constituted a large enough population for the species not to need protection. With federal protections lifted, states took on the responsibility of managing wolf protections and hunting laws. States such as Minnesota and Wisconsin immediately authorized hunting. In the hunting season immediately following the lifted regulations, hunters in these two states killed a combined total of 530 wolves. The same season, Michigan legislature voted to authorize wolf hunting, beginning the following fall.

The lift of federal wolf protections and the consequential widespread hunting of these animals in the Great Lakes regions prompted animal welfare groups such as The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to take action. These organizations filed a federal lawsuit in February of 2013 to restore protections for wolves in these regions.

“In the short time since federal protections have been removed, trophy hunters and trappers have killed hundreds of Great Lakes wolves under hostile state management programs that encourage dramatic reductions in wolf populations... This decision rolls back the only line of defense for wolf populations, and paves the way for the same state-sponsored eradication policies that pushed this species to the brink of extinction in the first place,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, chief counsel for animal protection litigation at HSUS.

In response to Lovvorn and HSUS, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued a statement, which noted that keeping wolves off the endangered animals list is the best course of action for both the animals and residents of the state. Others in the field such as Ed Golder from the Michigan DNR and Paul Schlege with the American Farm Bureau Federation agree with the state's management of wolves.

Support for wolf hunting is common among ranchers around these states, too. Schlege stated that keeping wolves huntable is welcomed by ranchers who have lost livestock - or fear they might - to wolves who have expanded their territory.

Due to the back-and-forth and efforts of organizations like HSUS, gray wolves were put back on the endangered species list. Yet, in 2015, environmentalist groups actually wanted to bring wolves a step down from the endangered species list they had earlier fought to keep them on and label them with "threatened status" instead. These groups argue that labeling wolves with threatened status will give them fewer protections but would then mandate said protections on a national scale. Right now, according to the groups, many states including Montana and Washington have ignored the wolves' current status, consequently leading to very little control over hunters and ranchers. The groups also say that they understand the sentiments and fears that some ranchers have as wolves regain some of their territories and indicate that demoting wolves to threatened status would be a good compromise with these ranchers.

The USFWS denied the requests from the HSUS and other environmentalist groups to re-classifying the wolves. The USFWS specifically stated that there isn't enough “substantial information indicating that reclassification may be warranted.”

However, recent research has added even more complexity to the debate. Researchers from Washington found that the “middle-ground” approach to this problem is actually worse for both ranchers and wolves; they argue that wolf control should be an “all or none” strategy. According to their studies, killing a small number of wolves actually increases the amount of livestock deaths. Rob Wielgus, a wildlife biologist, attributes this to destabilization of the wolf packs. Killing a few wolves possibly kills the wise older leaders, which could lead the packs away from human development.

As of now, there is no definitive solution for this problem that appeals to environmentalists and farmers alike. Environmentalists continue to fight for the wolves and ranchers for their livestock.

[Sources: Wisconsin State Journal ; National Public Radio; ]