Gray wolf numbers are likely peaking across the Northwoods of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but they’ll probably remain off limits to hunters and trappers for the fifth straight year since a federal court ordered wolves back onto the Endangered Species List in December 2014.
Under terms of that ruling nearly five years ago, gray wolves are currently listed as a “threatened” species in Minnesota. That status means only government agencies can kill wolves that prey on livestock. However, wolves remain classified as “endangered” in Wisconsin and Michigan’s U.P., which means the government kills them only to defend human life.
The controversial December 2014 court decision held that even though wolves were no longer endangered across portions of the Upper Great Lakes region, state wildlife agencies weren’t doing enough to protect them elsewhere in the Midwest. The judge said agencies must do more to safeguard wolves that might disperse into less suitable habitats in Minnesota, as well as North and South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.
U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington, D.C., also said Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan were “deficient” in addressing the possibilities of disease and illegal kills threatening the species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), meanwhile, keeps working to end federal protections and restore wolf management authority to individual state wildlife agencies. In March, it proposed removing all gray wolves from federal management, noting the species now roams free in nine states and numbers over 6,000 animals, making it “stable and healthy throughout its current range.”
The latest population estimates reported by the USFWS show at least 4,423 gray wolves across northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The agency reported minimums of 2,655 wolves in Minnesota, 905 in Wisconsin, and 662 in the U.P. All three estimates are higher than what those states estimated in 2014.
Scott Walter, the Wisconsin DNR’s large carnivore biologist, said the state’s gray wolf population seems to be stabilizing just above the 900-wolf estimate.
“That suggests wolves now inhabit Wisconsin’s most suitable wolf habitat,” Walter said. “They expanded for 30 years across our northern forests, which have relatively low human population densities. But as wolves tried pushing into our fringe areas where forests and farmlands merge, their population expansion slowed as they encountered more people, more conflicts and more motor vehicles.”
The Great Lakes wolf population was originally removed from the Endangered Species List (ESL) in 2007, but court challenges soon blocked that decision, and again after a second delisting in 2009. Minnesota and Wisconsin held their first hunting/trapping seasons in 2012 after the population was delisted a third time in December 2011. Wolves remained under state authority until Judge Howell’s decision in late 2014.
Minnesota and Wisconsin held hunting and trapping seasons from 2012 through 2014. Michigan held its only wolf-hunting season in 2013, and hunters registered 23 wolves. The Wolverine State held no wolf hunt in 2014 while voters considered, and eventually supported, ballot-box initiatives opposing wolf seasons.
SUPPORT FOR STATE CONTROL
State and federal biologists feel state wildlife agencies are well equipped to manage wolves with hunting/trapping seasons. The Minnesota DNR, for example, estimated the state held at least 2,423 wolves in its wolf range in winter 2013-14, 212 more than the same survey found in early 2013. The agency’s 2016-17 estimate—2,856 wolves—is 433 (18 percent) higher than the 2013-14 estimate.
In fact, Minnesota boasts the largest wolf population in the lower 48 states. Here’s how hunters and trappers fared during Minnesota’s three wolf seasons:
Minnesota’s Wolf Seasons
Year: Wolf Harvest Quota; Actual Harvest
- 2012: 400; 413
- 2013: 220; 237
- 2014: 250; 272
- 3-Year Combined Quota: 870
- 3-Year Actual Total Harvest: 922 (6 percent over quota)
Meanwhile, in late winter 2014, the Wisconsin DNR estimated the state’s wolf population at a minimum of 660 wolves, including 197 packs. That’s more than double the initial goal set for Wisconsin for federal delisting. The minimum late-winter 2013 estimate was 810 wolves, including 214 packs. Here’s Wisconsin’s three wolf seasons:
Wisconsin’s Wolf Seasons
Year: Wolf Harvest; Quota Actual Harvest
- 2012: 116; 117
- 2013: 251; 257
- 2014: 150; 154
- 3-Year Combined Quota: 517
- 3-Year Actual Total Harvest: 528 (2 percent over quota)
Those numbers demonstrate that the Wisconsin and Minnesota DNRs were able to quickly close wolf hunting/trapping seasons once the harvests neared or reached the established quota. Although both states did slightly overharvest above the given quotas, neither state’s harvest figures matched the dire predictions that had been made by a number of hunting/trapping opponents.
Minnesota currently has more wolves (2,856) than now inhabit the northern Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming (1,700), even though Congress in 2011 ended federal protections for gray wolves in Montana and Idaho in 2012.
Numbers like those help to explain why the USFWS declared in a statement in March that gray wolves no longer meet the Endangered Species Act’s definitions as endangered or threatened species. The agency wrote: “Wolves have recovered … and are neither currently in danger of extinction, nor likely to become so in the foreseeable future, throughout all or a significant portion of their range.”
One man who thinks it’s time to end federal protections for Great Lakes wolves is Ed Bangs, who spent 23 years as the USFWS’s wolf recovery coordinator in the Northern Rockies. Bangs said wolves long ago reached “recovered” status, as defined by the Endangered Species Act.
“Wolves aren’t this fragile population that state agencies can’t handle,” Bangs said. “State biologists are not going to wipe out the wolf. Even if you make a mistake and take a few more wolves than you planned, you can get that back very easily. We’ve proven that everywhere we’ve held a hunting or trapping season.”