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By Jennifer Bjorhus
Federal wildlife officials are removing the gray wolf from the U.S. Endangered Species Act list, saying the wolf population — an estimated 6,000 roaming the continental U.S. — has recovered and the animal no longer requires federal protection.
The national delisting decision, to be announced Thursday, turns management of the wolves over to states to handle as they see fit.
Long anticipated, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ruling is nonetheless a blockbuster as the wolf reigns with the bald eagle as a majestic and symbolic species in the United States, one revered by many Native American tribes. The delisting generally opens the gray wolf to hunting and trapping.
In Minnesota, however, a recreational wolf hunt would require state authorization, and Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan have said they oppose wolf hunting. Flanagan is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.
Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann said the governor is “disappointed” by the decision.
“The governor stands by the Minnesota DNR’s written comments to the federal agency that delisting is the wrong decision for both ecological and cultural reasons in the Lower 48,” Tschann said.
U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is slated to officially announce the final ruling at 1 p.m. Thursday at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington.
In an interview Thursday morning, Bernhardt said the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service used the five-factor analysis required by law to delist a species, and concluded the wolf is no longer endangered or threatened.
“Today’s effort is really a milestone in this incredible odyssey,” Bernhardt said. “These wolves are very resilient animals, provided there is not dramatic human-induced mortality.”
He added that he grew up hunting and was supposed to be elk hunting in Colorado this week.
An Department of Interior news release claimed that “no administration in history” has recovered more imperiled species in its first term than the Trump administration. Since 2017, the administration has delisted 14 species after finding them “fully recovered.”
A defining feature of the Trump Administration has been its systematic dismantling of environmental protection. The Endangered Species Act itself has been weakened in the name of efficiency.
The latest decision removes federal protection for the gray wolf in the Lower 48 states. Alaska’s wolves are not considered endangered and Hawaii doesn’t have wolves. Wolves in the northern Rocky Mountain area are already delisted. The Mexican wolf remains listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Asked about the timing of the announcement, made in a swing state just days before a highly-charged presidential election, Bernhardt called it a coincidence.
“We announce things when they get done,” he said.
The final rule is being sent to the Federal Register today; the rule takes effect 60 days after being published there.
Environmental groups immediately pledged to fight the decision in court. The Great Lakes gray wolves, which include Minnesota’s, were delisted in 2011, and then relisted in 2014 after a federal judge reinstated the federal protections.
Bernhardt said the administration has learned from prior litigation and expects its decision to hold up in court.
Minnesota livestock ranchers and many hunters embraced the ruling.
Shayne Isane, a cattle rancher in Roseau County near the Canada border, said wolf attacks on his cows are on the rise and that he lost about four calves last year. Under the Endangered Species Act, he cannot shoot the wolves even if he sees them killing one of his cows. Under state management, he could.
“I don’t know of a cattleman out there that wants to see the gray wolf eliminated,” Isane said. “They’d prefer some management. The state just hasn’t been able to do any management.”
Craig Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, said the organization supports managed recreational wolf hunting and trapping. The federal recovery plan for the Great Lakes area determined that the goal for the Minnesota wolf population was 1,250 to 1,400, and when those numbers were reached, the wolves would be deemed recovered, Engwall noted. Minnesota has exceeded that for decades, he said.
“It’s a species that can be managed like other species DNR manages,” Engwall said.
The gray wolf was first put on the Endangered Species Act list in the 1970s, after habitat loss and uncontrolled hunting and killing drove the animal to near extinction.
Minnesota’s wolf population has since rebounded and stabilized at 2,700 wolves — the largest population in the Lower 48. They roam the north and central parts of the state.
Dave Olfelt, director of the DNR’s division of fish and wildlife, said it makes sense for Minnesota’s wolves to be delisted since “the evidence indicates that the wolf population in Minnesota has met the objective criteria for delisting.”
The agency is far from making a decision regarding authorizing a wolf hunt, he said, and that will be part of “many, many more conversations.”
Meanwhile, the agency is updating state’s 2001 Wolf Management Plan. State law allows farmers and others to kill wolves themselves to protect livestock or pets.
In northeast Minnesota, the wolf must be an “immediate threat” to livestock or pets for a taking, but in the rest of the state the wolf doesn’t have to be an immediate threat for a taking.
Environmental groups decried the delisting as a tragic backward step in the face of global crisis, with a changing climate, declining biodiversity and a rising number of plant and animal extinctions. They said delisting is a death sentence for the gray wolf, whose recovery is still in its infancy.
“It’s really sad,” said Maureen Hackett, founder of the Minnesota nonprofit Howling for Wolves.
Hackett called wolves “a magnificent and social animal.” She said research shows that killing a wolf has devastating ripple effects that disrupt the entire wolf pack, causing more wolves to die and creating more conflicts with livestock. The wolf threat to cattle is overblown, she said, estimating that only 100 farms in Minnesota are affected. Cattle around the country face far graver threats, she said: “Dogs kills more cows than wolves.”
Dylan Jennings, spokesman for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, a natural resources arm for eleven Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan Ojibwe bands, said they were disappointed.
“The tribes have very ancient and traditional relationship with what we call Ma’iingan — the word for wolf,” Jennings said. “The tribes are concerned that it’s taken this long to revitalize the Ma’iingan population here within these regions, and reducing protections for them could be a risky decision.”
Brett Hartl, chief political strategist for the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, called Bernhardt’s public announcement a “desperate attempt to woo a few voters in Minnesota.”
Hartl said he thinks it’s “hypocritical” of Bernhardt to try to take any credit for wolf recoveries because the Trump administration has consistently tried to slash money for endangered species conservation. Trump and Bernhardt have added only 25 species to the Endangered Species Act list in four years, he said, the fewest of any administration in history.
Bernhardt called the assertions “absolutely ridiculous,” pointing to the Great American Outdoors Act that President Donald Trump supported, which provides nearly $900 million a year of permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Hartl characterized the fund as more to do with park maintenance and not species conservation work.
Collette Adkins, a lawyer with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, said her organization will be part of a “big coalition lawsuit” challenging the ruling in court.
Adkins said that peer reviews of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s delisting proposal in 2019 found “substantial errors” and said it “misrepresents current science on wolf conservation and taxonomy.”
The delisting is based on the wolf’s recovery in just one area, she said: the Great Lakes region. The gray wolf has not recovered elsewhere, she said. California has only one wolf pack left, she said, and Oregon has only about 100 wolves remaining. It’s simply too soon to deem the wolf recovered.
Several environmental organization said the delisting is out of step with the general public.
According to an analysis by the Center for Western Priorities, when the gray wolf delisting was officially proposed last year, more than 757,000 people commented, nearly all in opposition to the plan.
More than 80 members of the U.S. House and Senate signed letters to Bernhardt opposing the delisting as “premature,” last year. From Minnesota, signers included U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Betty McCollum.