A federal judge on Friday placed the gray wolf back on the endangered species list, a measure that put an immediate stop to wolf hunts in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

It's the fourth time in the last 10 years that courts have intervened in favor of gray wolf protection, and this time it overturns a 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision that opened the way for hunting wolves in the Great Lakes region for the first time in 40 years.

"In the short time since federal protections have been removed, trophy hunters and trappers have killed more than 1,500 Great Lakes wolves under hostile state management programs that encourage dramatic reductions in wolf populations," said Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for animal protection litigation at the Humane Society of the United States.

The group sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year over wolf protections.

A state DNR spokesman said the ruling means that, effective immediately, Minnesotans can no longer kill wolves except in the defense of human life.

It's not yet clear whether the state can or will move to appeal the decision: It's long been the DNR's belief that a managed wolf hunt would not imperil the animal's survival in Minnesota, said spokesman Chris Niskanen.

"Many, many wolf experts around the country have said you can harvest wolves without having an impact on their populations," he said.

Despite Friday's ruling, state or federal wildlife agents may shoot wolves suspected of livestock depredation, the DNR said. Some 200 wolves in Minnesota were killed by those officials this year.

David Mech, a wolf expert for the U.S. Geological Survey, said he is perplexed by Friday's court ruling because it runs against ample scientific evidence that wolves are not endangered in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"It sure is going to surprise a lot of people, especially wolf biologists,'' said Mech, who has studied wolves for 56 years and provided testimony the last time wolves in the region were removed from Endangered Species Act protections.

Mech said halting the wolf hunt shouldn't have much effect on other animals in Minnesota, such as deer and moose, because the wolf harvest has not been drastic. Far more wolves are born each year than were being killed by hunters, Mech said.

History of protections

Starting in 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has moved four times to "de-list" the gray wolf and remove federal protections, which allows individual states to manage wolf hunts.

Wildlife protection groups fought for continued protections each time, and the first three attempts by the Fish and Wildlife Service to de-list the wolf (in 2003, 2007 and 2009) were either struck down in court or withdrawn in a court-ordered settlement.

In the ruling Friday, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell expressed impatience with the Fish and Wildlife Service, writing "enough is enough."

"The FWS's Final Rule challenged in this action is no more valid than the agency's three prior attempts to remove federal protections for a population of gray wolves, which are otherwise members of an endangered species," she wrote. Howell called the hunts in the Great Lakes region "virtually unregulated" and said that wolves do not yet inhabit all of their historic range and therefore need protections.

It's the second time this year that wildlife protection groups have found support in federal courts: In September, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman put the gray wolf back on the endangered species list in Wyoming, ending a hunt there.

Minnesota hunters killed 272 gray wolves this year before the season ended, according to the DNR. The latest estimate says 2,423 gray wolves roam the state. That's up about 200 animals from last year, but down from a peak of 3,020 in 2004. Friday's ruling means the gray wolf is now listed as threatened in Minnesota and endangered in Wisconsin and Michigan.

Gray wolf hunting has been popular among hunters despite slim odds of success: Some 15,000 people applied for 3,800 licenses available this year. Fewer than one in 10 licensed hunters shot or trapped a gray wolf in past seasons.

Dennis Quarberg, interim executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said his group favored hunting wolves for the good of the species. He said this year's Minnesota wolf hunt provided the latest proof that the pack is healthy because hunters quickly hit the state's kill quota in two of the DNR's three hunting and trapping zones.

He said hunters in Alaska and Canada have proved that wolf populations benefit from managed harvests.

Julian Brzoznowski, 74, said the court ruling is a "disgrace to common sense." Brzoznowski lives on a farm north of Orr where federal wildlife officials have trapped some 200 wolves over the past 15 years to curtail predation of Brzoznowski's livestock herds.

"There's no way they are endangered," he said.

Brzoznowski described the wolf population in his area as stable and not growing because deer and moose are scarce as food sources for the pack. He said the annual wolf hunt over the past three years has been more than offset by the pack's natural reproduction rate.

"The wolves replenish as long as there's food," he said.

Wildlife protection groups said it's not just about gray wolf populations in Minnesota.

"We need healthy, core populations of wolves like we've got in the Great Lakes so wolves can disperse to other areas," said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. Her organization was one of two that sued the DNR to stop the Minnesota wolf hunt. The Minnesota Court of Appeals in 2013 threw out their challenge to the hunting and trapping season.

"It's a huge victory for the Endangered Species Act," Giese said of Friday's ruling.

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