Thursday, March 16, 2006

Three states to assume wolf management

Norton expected to announce change today

BY JOHN MYERS - Duluth News Tribune

U.S. Interior Secretary Gail Norton is expected to announce a plan today to hand over management of wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan to natural resource agencies in those states.

The plan, in the works for a decade, will give the states leeway to trap and shoot wolves in areas where livestock or pets have been killed. Wolves will lose their federal Endangered Species Act threatened status in Minnesota and endangered status in Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The plan is a scaled-down version of one proposed by Norton in 2004 that was struck down by two federal courts, in Oregon and Vermont, in 2005.

Both courts, siding with environmental groups, said the 2004 plan took the federal government out of wolf management too soon and in too broad an area, including where the animals were not yet recovered from the brink of extinction or where they don't even exist.

But the courts also made it clear that wolves are thriving in the Great Lakes region and that a plan to remove them from federal protections here could be acceptable.

"The judges agreed wolves are recovered in the Great Lakes region,'' said Adrian Wydeven, wolf biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Minnesota has more than 3,000 wolves, and Wisconsin and Michigan each have about 450. That's more than triple the amount established 30 years ago by scientists for wolves to be considered recovered in the Great Lakes region.

The plan to be announced today won't affect efforts to relax federal protections in Eastern or Western states, which remain tied up in court battles and politics concerning state wolf management plans.

The federal delisting process could take up to a year and still could face court challenges. But it's possible the three Great Lakes states could be managing their own wolves by this time next year.

Minnesota lawmakers passed a state wolf management plan in 2000 that includes two wolf management zones. In the northeastern third of the state, wolves will retain most protections. In other areas, farmers and others will have broader leeway to shoot or trap wolves if they are a threat to livestock, pets or people.

Attorneys for groups that challenged the federal wolf plan say a Great Lakes-only plan is not a done deal. While population numbers are stable, some groups still oppose the shooting and trapping provisions in the state management plans.

The recovery of wolves is seen as a success for the federal Endangered Species Act.

Gray or timber wolves were extinct in all of the lower 48 states in the 1970s except for the Superior National Forest in Northeastern Minnesota. The federal government stepped in to protect wolves in the mid-1970s. Since then, wolf numbers have grown exponentially in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan's Upper Peninsula and eventually in the northern Rockies.

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