Even though wolves are thriving in Minnesota and around the Great Lakes, the federal government may have to start over in devising a plan to protect them in the Upper Midwest and beyond before the state is allowed to resume its three-year-old hunting season.
A sharply worded federal court ruling handed down Friday put the wolf back on the endangered species list in the Great Lakes region.
The 111-page decision essentially wipes out a decade of wolf management in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.
It also raises difficult questions about the future of the wolf nationally and the intent of the Endangered Species Act that could take years to resolve.
"This ruling is bigger than the Great Lakes states," said Mike Phillips, director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund.
In the meantime, illegal killing of wolves is likely to increase, said hunters and experts, a sign of the growing frustrations over the most controversial animal ever to win federal protection.
"All this partisan judge did was declare open season on wolves," read one posting on the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association Facebook page. "Shoot, shovel, shut-up."
Dennis Udovich, a guide, hunter and trapper in northeastern Minnesota, says he's getting numerous phone calls from frustrated hunters and others who want to know what they can do to get the wolf hunt re-instated.
"That's bad," he said. "I love the wolf, but this animal has to be kept in check," he said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to comment on the ruling, other than to say in a statement that it is "a step backward." It could appeal the decision by the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C.
If it opts not to appeal, it would have to come up with a management plan for the Great Lakes and nationally that withstands judicial scrutiny — something it has failed to do at least four times in the last 10 years.
Wolf experts said the court decision had little to do with the numbers of wolves in the Great Lakes — about 3,000 in Minnesota and 1,500 total in Wisconsin and Michigan. U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell said she based her decision to re-list the wolf on two issues: Whether the animal had recovered in other parts of the country where it could live and whether the Midwestern states had adequate plans in place to protect them from future risks, both natural and human.
There are times, she said, a court "must lean forward from the bench to let an agency know, in no uncertain terms, that enough is enough. This is one of those times."
She singled out Minnesota's plan, which she said permitted the unlimited killing of wolves in some areas. The plan calls for a minimum population of 1,600 animals in the state.
But it allows "a virtual carte blanche" for eradication of wolves in the southern two-thirds of the state by allowing land owners and managers the right to kill them any time to protect their livestock and pets, even in the absence of attacks.
Minnesota wildlife officials said in a brief to the court that landowners have the right to kill wolves only in the part of the state that is not suitable habitat for wolves, and where conflicts with people are likely to arise. Moreover, they said, the policy would not hurt the overall number of wolves in the state.
Still, the judge said, the federal agency "fails to explain adequately how the presence of an unregulated killing zone" for any wolf that happened to wander into 65 percent of the state is a mechanism to prevent gray wolves from being wiped out again, she said.
Ensuring viable numbers
David Mech, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and other wolf experts gave the three Midwestern states high marks for their wolf-management plans, and said that they would ensure viable populations. But Howell said the fish and wildlife service failed to consider the overall impact of hunting, trapping, illegal killing and disease on the Great Lakes population.
A healthy wolf population is not enough, said Jonathan Lovvorn, chief counsel for animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States, which filed the lawsuit. "But that doesn't mean its OK to add large numbers of human-caused mortality."
The unresolved question of the wolf's territory is likely to have national implications, experts said.
One of the requirements for delisting under the Endangered Species Act is the return of an animal to "a significant portion of its range," including across state borders.
No one expects the wolf to roam from coast to coast as it once did, experts said, but that portion of the law has long been the subject of legal fights.
There are also wolves now in Montana, Wyoming and other western states, but the humane society and other conservation groups have long argued that they still only occupy a fraction of the territory they once did.
Illinois, for example, will probably never have a viable population of reproducing wolves, Mech said. But there are huge areas in the west, including western Colorado, that have prime habitat for wolves, but no known wolf population.
But Howell said in her ruling that the federal government failed to provide an explanation for those broad geographic gaps in its recovery plans nationally, said Lovvorn.
"They drew arbitrary political circles around areas that had wolves and tried to delist them in those areas regardless of their historic range," he said. "And the court said you can't do that."