Sunday, March 19, 2006

Marquette, Michigan to be site of wolf delisting meeting

By JOHN PEPIN, Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE — Marquette is expected to be one of two Michigan locations hosting upcoming public hearings on removing federal Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region. Details of the meeting schedule have not been released, but are expected to be announced soon, after notice of a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule to delist the gray wolf is published in the Federal Register. That publication is expected by Wednesday.

On Thursday, U.S. Dept. of the Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced in a media teleconference the recovery of gray wolves in the western Great Lakes Region and the Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to take the species off the protected list. The action, if finalized by the agency after soliciting public comment through the series of public hearings and other communications, would entrust management of the species to state wildlife agencies and Indian tribes.

“The states have strong solid plans for managing gray wolves,” Norton said, speaking on the conference call from Houston, Texas.

Only wolves in the western Great Lakes region would be affected by the new proposal. Currently, there are at least 3,020 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, which is roughly 80 percent of all wolves in the lower 48 states. Once the last stronghold for wolves before severe decline, the Great Lakes region is hoped by federal officials to be the first area to recover populations successfully to the point of delisting.

“The gray wolf is now doing very well in the upper Midwest,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall.

The new proposal would lift federal protections for wolves in all of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan as well as parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. This area is narrowly structured around the core areas where wolves have exceeded recovery goals since 1999 and nearby areas where wolf packs may become established in the future. The distinct population segment also includes surrounding areas into which wolves may disperse but are not likely to establish packs. Biologists used an outlying boundary of between 250 to 300 miles beyond current wolf range.

The new proposal is currently available for review and a 90-day public comment period will begin once the proposed rule is published. The public hearings will be held within that period. Last Thursday, officials said Marquette and Grayling would be Michigan sites for hearings, along with other places in the region including Duluth, Minn.

Following the public comment period, the Fish and Wildlife Service will evaluate all information and make a decision on whether to finalize the proposal. Until a final decision is made, wolves in the western Great Lakes remain protected under the Endangered Species Act. Officials expect it will take eight months to a year to reach a final decision.

Fish and Wildlife officials crafted the new proposal in response to court rulings last year that criticized proposed areas for delisting as too large, covering too many states, and places in some cases where wolves may not even occur. Officials said they hope court judges will see the new proposal as being biologically sound in its scope and boundaries.

Norton said some of the benefits to having a recovered wolf population in the region include healthier, more resilient ecosystems, a potential tourism source by travelers wanting to see or hear wolves and the value to children and future generations in knowing that an endangered species was preserved.

Under the new proposal, gray wolf populations would be monitored for five years after delisting. If any drastic threats to the populations arose, emergency relisting could be imposed. Gray wolves were first placed on the federal endangered species list in 1974. At that time, there were only gray wolves living in northern Minnesota and on Isle Royale, in the lower 48 states.

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