Monday, September 25, 2006

Federal plan would remove Great Lakes wolves from endangered, threatened lists

By Kurt Krueger - News-Review Editor

More than a year after its initial plan was reversed in federal court, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) is again proposing to remove Wisconsin's gray wolves from the federal Endangered Species List. But this time, the agency has singled out Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota instead of lumping other states into the delisting proposal, which was overturned by a federal judge in Oregon last January.

Officials say the wolf population in the western Great Lakes region now numbers close to 4,000 animals, including more than 3,000 in Minnesota. Wolves have become well-established in Wisconsin and Michigan, with numbers totaling at least 425 and 405, respectively. In Wisconsin, the wolf population was estimated at between 425 and 455 in the winter of 2005. The 2006 wolf population count is due in April.

In August 2004, the gray wolf was removed from Wisconsin's Endangered and Threatened Species List and designated a protected wild animal. The delisting recognizes that the gray wolf has completely recovered after being extirpated in the 1960s.

"This is a landmark in Wisconsin's gray wolf history. Gray wolves join the bald eagle, osprey, fisher and wild turkey as a species again flourishing in our state," said Natural Resources Secretary Scott Hassett.

Federal delisting from both the endangered and threatened list would return all management authority to the state wildlife agencies in the areas covered by the population segment. Under federal control, state biologists have had limited, inconsistent authority to trap and kill some depredating wolves. Although the wolf will be classified as a protected nongame species, the delisting will make it easier for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services to control problem wolves which prey on farm animals. State officials say greater authority also may be given to landowners to allow them to control problem wolves attacking livestock on their land.

Adrian Wydeven, a DNR biologist who heads the wolf-management team, said they also can use proactive management to keep wolves in the territories where they belong. He said wolves that attempt to relocate and establish packs in agricultural areas away from large public forests could be trapped and killed. "We would have quite a few new tools for keeping wolf numbers in check and keeping wolf packs in the public forests where they belong," said Wydeven.

FWS officials said the reclassification effort will take several months and the delisting could be completed late in 2006 or early in 2007. With the Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan population goal of 350 wolves now exceeded, Wydeven said it will be important for the department to use all of the available tools for controlling wolf numbers. He said wolf depredation has increased threefold in just four years, going from eight cases in 2002 to 25 cases in 2005. "We are hearing more negative attitudes from landowners and hunters, but with this delisting proposal, our ability to control the spread of the population is looking bright," said Wydeven.

A wolf population count completed in April 2005 included 414 to 442 outside of reservations putting it as much as 26% above goal. Another 11 to 13 wolves were located on reservations, with new figures expected out next month.

While wolf numbers have grown in past years, Wydeven said the annual increase has averaged 11% in this decade compared to an average of 22% annual growth in the 1990s. "It's quite possible that the wolf population is nearing its carrying capacity in wolf range," he said. "The challenge is to keep them away from the edge of wolf range, where it overlaps with private land and agriculture."

Signe Holtz, director of the DNR's endangered resources bureau, said the goal of 350 wolves "is a number around which we can manage; in the ballpark." She said the wolf plan states that if the tools available to state biologists are not successful in keeping the population near goal, the DNR could consider a public harvest or other measures.

Hassett said there are no plans at this time for public harvest of the wolf. He said the wolf plan's 350-animal goal was established as the level at which public harvest could be considered, but specific language was not included in the plan on how such a harvest might occur. The Natural Resources Board avoided specific language on harvest in the 1999 plan after public input. Legislative approval would be required prior to any public harvest.

Public hearings on the proposed wolf delisting will be May 8 in Duluth, Minn., May 10 in Wausau, and May 16 in Marquette, Mich. The official hearings start at 7:30 p.m., but will be preceded at 6 p.m. by information sessions. The Wausau hearing will be held at Westwood Conference Center. Information about the sessions is available at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Web site, www.fws.gov/midwest/wolf/.

Wisconsin's current gray wolf population recolonized from Minnesota when the protections of state and federal endangered species acts took effect. The first Wisconsin pack was located in 1975. With considerable public involvement, the DNR developed first a Wisconsin Wolf Recovery plan in 1989, and later a Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan in 1999. The management plan, approved by the Natural Resources Board, outlines management of the wolf in the state after federal delisting and can be viewed at www.dnr.wi.gov.

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