Lately, Minnesota's gray wolves have inspired more passion than the Minnesota Timberwolves.

That's partly because of their iconic image, which fits perfectly with the postcard version of "Up North," the mythical Minnesota of the Boundary Waters and beyond.

It's also because management of the gray wolf has been such a black-and-white issue for so many years. Two camps have fought a long-running regulatory and public-relations battle.

One side, led mostly by environmental, conservation and animal-rights groups, advocates for the status quo of wolves remaining on the federal endangered list under a "threatened" status.

The other side argues for bringing wolf management under state control via the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Multiple events may finally settle the issue. For the wolves, and for humans, it's imperative that the right decision is made, and that it fosters consensus among conservationists, government agencies, farmers, ranchers and everyday Minnesotans.

The three events started when Congress, as part of the recent last-minute budget bill compromise, delisted the wolf from the Endangered Species Act in the Rocky Mountain region.

The same bill de-funded management of Minnesota's wolf population. Then, for the third time, federal authorities announced their intention to remove the gray wolf from the endangered list in the western Great Lakes region.

Next will be draft rules from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A public comment period will follow, and it may take until the end of the year to decide the issue.

It's important to proceed deliberately, as concerns over the public-comment process derailed the previous effort.

And any decision should be based on science, not politics, especially because officials need to sort out to what degree a different species, the eastern wolf, is intermingled with more plentiful gray wolves.

But based on expert analysis, and the need for a long-term solution, it's time to make the move to state management. The DNR and many other key stakeholders share the same goal of a well-managed, thriving wolf population that lives in appropriate balance with people.

Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agreed with that approach during a meeting with the Star Tribune Editorial Board last week. He also said his agency would offer technical assistance.

State management is supported by experts such as Dan Stark, wolf specialist at the DNR; Dave Mech, a scientist specializing in wolves at the U.S. Geological Service, and Nancy Gibson, board member of the International Wolf Center.

Some prominent politicians, including U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. John Kline, have also publicly called for state management. Their bipartisan support will be key to finding money to fill the funding gap that may exist until the issue is finally decided.

In the interim, it's vital that wolves not be left unmanaged due to budget cuts. Trapping and destroying wolves that take livestock or pets is part of the bargain, and it increases confidence that man and wolf can coexist in relative harmony.

Those advocating for the status quo should remember that legislation such as the Endangered Species Act depends on citizen support.

Success with species like the gray wolf increases confidence in the law, allowing other vulnerable species to get the time, attention and funding necessary to maintain, and even grow, the biological diversity that is at the core of Minnesota.

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