Minnesota's gray wolves once again will receive federal protection under a settlement announced Monday between the U.S. government and several groups fighting to return the wolves to the list of protected animals.
Pending court approval, gray wolves in Minnesota will return to their previous "threatened species" status, while the gray wolf populations in Wisconsin and Michigan will go back on the endangered species list.
The new designation makes it illegal for Minnesota landowners to kill wolves they catch in the act of preying upon livestock, pets or guard animals.
On May 4, federal officials removed gray wolves in the Great Lakes area from the endangered list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimating that gray wolves number about 4,000 in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, concluded they no longer needed federal help.
A coalition of environmental and animal-rights groups then filed a lawsuit challenging the decision, arguing that the government broke the law when it issued its ruling because it did not provide public notice or invite public comment.
In the settlement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed that it erred in not offering a public comment period, as required by law.
The agreement calls for a public comment period of at least 60 days should the government seek to remove the gray wolves from the endangered species list again.
Fish and Wildlife authorities wasted no time Monday in stating their aim.
"We fully expect we'll propose delisting again in a few months or so," said Laura Ragan, a fish and wildlife biologist with the service.
"There are no red flags raising that say that wolves are not recovered," she said. "The main thing is that population numbers have continued to grow, even under state management."
Among the groups suing the Fish and Wildlife Service were the Humane Society of the United States and the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Ariz., which celebrated the settlement.
"We're absolutely delighted," said Michael Robinson, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity. "We were extraordinarily worried about the wolves that were getting killed."
He called the settlement a temporary victory. "We're not so naïve as to believe that the wolves are going to be protected from this point on," Robinson said.
'Tying our hands'
Sam Scott, who manages the Rolling Thunder Ranch in Hillman, in central Minnesota, said he was disappointed by the return to protected status for the wolves.
"It's just tying our hands again," he said. "At least when they were not protected, if and when we did see one [stalking a farm animal], we could try to eliminate it. Now, the damage is done before we can ever get help."
He said he will now have to wait until a wolf kills a calf before he can act, and even then he will have to call the wolf control specialist to handle it.
So far this year, he's lost six calves to wolves, he said.
Gray wolves should have been removed from the endangered list long ago, argues David Mech, senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota.
They've been added and removed and added again to the endangered list for years. "It's always for procedural reasons," he said.
Why the back and forth?
The reason for the constant back and forth, he suggested, is that some environmental groups want to see the wolves as protected as much as possible.
The protections offered under the federal Endangered Species Act are tighter than they are under state management of the wolf population, Mech said.
Dan Stark, a wolf specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said the state's gray wolf population is thriving.
"Our population is stable and has exceeded recovery goals for decades," he said, adding that the wolves live primarily in the northern third of the state.
Gray wolves were listed as endangered in 1974, after they had been wiped out across most of the Lower 48 in the early 20th century by hunting and government-sponsored poisoning.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Allie Shah • 612-673-4488