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Court keeps Great Lakes wolves on endangered species list

John Flesher
Associated Press

TRAVERSE CITY, MI. (AP) - A federal appeals court this week retained federal protection for gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region, ruling that the government made crucial errors when it dropped them from the endangered species list five years ago.

The court upheld a district judge who overruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which had determined that wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin had recovered after being shot, trapped and poisoned nearly out of existence in the previous century. They've bounced back and now total about 3,800.

Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation President Jim Holte says wolf numbers in the Badger state have long recovered past the point of needing federal protection, and says lawsuits from extreme animal rights groups have kept this issue in a back-and-forth legal limbo.

Jim Holte

"With 4,000 gray wolves across the Western Great Lakes Region, the species is hardly struggling, yet our farmers struggle to protect their livestock from the growing population of these predators," Holte said. "Unfortunately, Wisconsin farmers will again be at the mercy of decisions made in court rooms instead of using sound science."

Even so, courts have sided with environmental groups led by the Humane Society of the United States, which have sued to block the service's repeated efforts to strip wolves in the region of their protected status and put states in charge of them. The service made its latest attempt in 2011. U.S. Judge Beryl A. Howell struck down the plan three years later.

In a 3-0 ruling Tuesday, Aug. 1, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said the service had not sufficiently considered important factors. They included how loss of historical territory would affect the predator's recovery and how removing the Great Lakes population segment from the endangered list would affect wolves in other parts of the nation.

“The court handed down this opinion despite an abundance of scientific and commercial data showing no material threat to the wolf population," said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "Neither the goals outlined in various recovery plans nor the aggressive and successful leadership to save the wolves in affected states moved the court to do the right thing."

As long as wolves are on the protected list, they cannot be killed unless human life is at risk. That means the three states cannot resume the hunting and trapping seasons they had when wolves were under their control.

Rep. Sean Duffy

Rep. Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican, urged the Trump administration to appeal the court ruling.

"Our farmers deserve to be able to protect their livestock, and they should not suffer because of the decisions made by an overreaching federal government a thousand miles away," Duffy said.

A spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service had no immediate comment.

The same court took wolves in Wyoming off the endangered list in May. Environmental advocates cheered the ruling on Great Lakes wolves, saying they remain vulnerable despite their comeback in recent decades.

"The second highest court in the nation reaffirmed that we must do much more to recover gray wolves before declaring the mission accomplished," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Wolves are still missing from more than 90 percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states, and both the Endangered Species Act and common sense tell us we can't ignore that loss."

Organizations representing farmers and ranchers, who want authority to shoot wolves preying on livestock, have long pushed to drop them from the federal list, which hunting groups also favor.

FILE - In this July 16, 2004, file photo, a gray wolf is seen at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn. Pressure is building in Congress to take gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region and Wyoming off the endangered list _ and to prevent the courts from reversing that decision again. Representatives from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Wyoming wrote to House Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017, urging a fast floor vote before calving and lambing season begins in earnest. (AP Photo/Dawn Villella, File)

"There's no question the wolf packs have recovered," Duvall said. "We only wish we could say the same of farms and ranches within their reach."

Some members of Congress have tried repeatedly to attach provisions to various bills that would "delist" wolves, return management responsibilities to the states and bar further court challenges. The efforts succeeded with Northern Rockies wolves in 2011. But the latest attempt to do likewise with Great Lakes wolves fizzled in May when congressional negotiators dropped such a proposal from a spending measure.

Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle said Congress and wildlife regulators should "recognize that wolves provide an enormous range of ecological and economic services to the regions where they live, and they do it for free."

The appeals court rejected the society's arguments that wolves are still threatened by humans and disease and that state management plans wouldn't safeguard them. But the judges said the process used by the Fish and Wildlife Service to remove protections from the wolves was fatally flawed.

In this February 2012 photo provided by George Desort, two gray wolves walk in the Isle Royale National Park in Northern Michigan.

By designating wolves in the three Great Lakes states and six others as a distinct population segment and dropping them from the endangered list without evaluating the effect on wolves elsewhere, the service created a "backdoor route" for lifting protections elsewhere, said the opinion written by Judge Patricia Millett.

The service "cannot review a single segment with blinders on," Millett wrote.

Colleen Kottke contributed to this report.