How many gray wolves should live in Minnesota? Or in Michigan and Wisconsin?
Or across the Lower 48?
These questions go to a key legal point federal judges keep making to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service every time the agency tries to delist wolves in a cluster of states: The Endangered Species Act specifically requires the protection of species critically imperiled in any “significant portion” of their historic range across the United States.
That crucial point was at the center of U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell’s very predictable and legally sound recent ruling that the Fish and Wildlife Service had no legal ground on which to stand when in December 2011 it arbitrarily dropped federal protections for wolves in six Great Lakes region states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
For the Fish and Wildlife Service, the judge’s ruling is nothing new.
Federal courts have repeatedly told the agency that it cannot arbitrarily ignore the Endangered Species Act and remove protections from the gray wolf in its population cores, when the wolf has not recovered across its historic range — because where does that stop?
When wolves are recovered at the state level?
That kind of regional and local control of wolves is exactly what livestock and hunting interests have been pushing for ever since wolves first gained federal protection.
In her ruling, the judge questioned the goals and effectiveness of state wolf-management efforts. For example, she questioned Minnesota’s “unlimited” wolf-killing zone — the approximately two-thirds of the state where landowners are given “virtual carte blanche” latitude to decide when to kill wolves that wander onto their property.
The judge also pointed out that even for those who believe — in direct contradiction of the Endangered Species Act — that wolf protections can be removed state by state, it’s unclear how anyone could determine that wolves are “recovered” across the Great Lakes states, when areas such as the lower peninsula of Michigan have no resident wolf populations.
After a similar court loss removing protections for wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains in 2011, Congress attached a rider to a government funding bill legislatively removing protections in Montana, Idaho, and portions of Oregon and Washington.
With Republicans now controlling Congress, it would not be surprising to again see this kind of underhanded legislative effort to remove needed protections for wolves. This would be no way to implement the Endangered Species Act, and it would set a dangerous precedent whereby anytime a species becomes inconvenient, Congress steps in and removes protections.
If those in Congress opposed to the Endangered Species Act begin pushing in 2015 for a rider to drop federal protections for wolves in the Great Lakes region — or across the nation — the only question that will remain is whether a majority of our congressional representatives and President Obama will take a stand for science and the law, or once again bow down to the wishes of the livestock and sport-hunting industries.
Collette Adkins Giese is a Minneapolis-based attorney and biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, where a focus of her work is to protect gray wolves in Minnesota.