Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Killing Michigan wolves next move?

By JOHN PEPIN, Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE — While the public scrutinizes a new federal plan for taking gray wolves off the endangered species list, Michigan officials will soon find out whether they will be allowed to use lethal means to control wolves in the interim. Currently, the state has no legal authority to kill problem wolves and must only harass or trap wolves known that have killed livestock or pets.But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release a decision within the next two weeks on whether to grant Michigan’s permit application for lethal control measures.

The proposed measures were detailed in a draft environmental assessment developed by Wildlife Services, a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Included in the draft plan are a range of options explored for addressing the problem of wolf damage in Michigan, including the preferred alternative which would allow control of wolves found to be responsible for killing or attacking livestock and pets. Under this alternative, an integrated management program would provide for permits allowing removal of depredating wolves. If the preferred alternative is ultimately adopted, it would use an integrated approach to the problem including both lethal and non-lethal measures for problem wolves on private and public lands.

In January, officials made the draft available and closed a public comment period on the plan Feb. 21. The final document, including a selected wolf management decision, is now being finalized. A similar proposal for Wisconsin is also being evaluated, but a decision there is not expected for at least a couple of months. Gray wolves are currently federal endangered species and threatened species under Michigan law. Permits for managing endangered species are provided for under the Endangered Species Act.

Under the wolf damage control program, permits would be issued to the state, with control actions carried out by the DNR or USDA Wildlife Services, acting as an agent of the state. Other alternatives examined in the draft environmental assessment include a program using only non-lethal control methods; technical assistance from federal agencies and no federal involvement in wolf damage management in Michigan.

Last April, the DNR was granted a federal permit to use lethal control, under certain conditions. That permit would have allowed the DNR to take up to 20 wolves through the end of 2005. At that time, the DNR pledged to continue to pursue and promote non-lethal techniques for preventing livestock depredation by wolves and retain use the option of killing problem wolves as a last resort.

Some environmental groups oppose the state’s efforts to use lethal control or to take the species from the federal endangered species list. A federal court ruling in September took back the DNR’s permit privilege to use lethal means. After a month seeking clarification on the ruling, it was determined the state could still use its non-lethal tactics. The main problem with the DNR permit was that it was included under a permit for Wisconsin wolves. After the judge ruled the Michigan permit should be separate, the DNR applied for its own permit.

Meanwhile, Michigan is also revising its state plan for managing wolves, with the help of a 22-member advisory committee. Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota all have state wolf management plans designed to maintain minimum wolf populations exceeding the recovery criteria for an isolated wolf population in the federal eastern recovery plan.

The state plans implement management actions and protections that will maintain wolf populations above the federal recovery criteria for the foreseeable future. Currently, the Michigan plan calls for a minimum sustainable population of 200 wolves in the Upper Peninsula. Habitat, prey, and land-use analysis showed that the U.P. can support at least 800 wolves.

No upper population limit is specified, but an upper limit referred to as “the cultural carrying capacity” will be determined by public reaction. The plan acknowledges that in the future, “some degree of wolf population stabilization and control” may be needed and that “some wolves will likely need to be killed under controlled conditions.”

The advisory panel, which will have varied interests represented, is expected to work for roughly six months to reach a consensus on guiding principals for managing wolves in Michigan. The state’s management plan for wolf management will then be revised to meet the criteria set out by the panel.

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