If you want to hear about a federal program that has succeeded — maybe too well — you should hear what Wisconsinites tell us and our staffs about the return of the gray wolf.
The wolf justifiably spent the better part of three decades on the Endangered Species List, an extraordinary level of protection that has allowed a remarkable increase in the population of this top-level predator across a third of our state. Wolves have responded so well that they are no longer hunting just for deer and they are no longer living far from humans.
Farmers tell about losing cattle routinely to wolves. Worse, they feel they have no control over a growing threat, said Mark Liebaert of South Range. A member of the Douglas County Board, he's also the treasurer of the Wisconsin Farmers Union Board of Directors. He hears from many northern farmers alarmed by increasing wolf attacks on their livestock.
Liebaert farms cattle not deep in the North Woods but only 15 miles from downtown Superior. Wolves hunt his cattle and they are not frightened off by humans. 'They have spread,' he said. 'They're into agricultural areas.'
That is an effect of the extraordinary rebound that led wildlife experts in the U.S. Department of the Interior — as far back as 2011 — to determine that the gray wolf in the western Great Lakes is no longer endangered. The population was 'fully recovered and healthy,' said President Obama's secretary of the interior.
This federal 'delisting' meant that state wildlife agencies could begin to manage the population so the wolf's ongoing role in the ecosystem did not come at the expense of farmers, loggers, sportsmen and people who simply live in the northern third of our state. Numbers have been growing so rapidly that the quota-limited, state-sanctioned wolf hunts during the winters of 2012-13 and 2013-14 resulted in just over 500 wolves being legally harvested.
The rapid growth in wolf numbers is also why so many people across the state are angry that in 2014, a judge in Washington, D.C., overruled the wildlife experts and returned the gray wolf to the Endangered Species List. The judge's decision ignored science and took the management of wolf population out of Wisconsin experts' hands. It left Wisconsinites with no say.
'People can't walk their dogs' safely in rural areas, said Liebaert. They fear losing beloved companions 'because the wolves come out of the woods.' Farmers seeing their livestock attacked can do nothing. 'I could legally shoot my neighbor's dog if it were harassing my cattle,' he said, 'but I cannot shoot a wolf that's killing them.'
Proper wildlife management can prevent that kind of absurd situation. It means that wolves and people can get along. The first step is to return to the course that the U.S. Department of Interior deemed appropriate — delisting the gray wolf. That's why we've each led congressional efforts in the House and the Senate by introducing bills last year, and pursuing legislative action to do just that. And just last week, Sen. Johnson filed an amendment to an energy policy bill to accomplish the same thing.
This amendment's language does not modify the Endangered Species Act, nor does it stop the Fish and Wildlife Service from returning the wolf to the endangered list if its experts determine the population is again in need of such protection. We agree with the Wisconsinites who say future gray wolf listing decisions should come from the experts in Wisconsin, not judges in Washington.
All of us can all agree that it's important to protect our environment — and that a crucial part of the success we've seen has been the protections given by the Endangered Species Act to wildlife populations that have needed it. But we need to recognize a win. The wolf belongs in Wisconsin, but so do farmers and rural residents. Federal policy should accommodate both.