The Wolves Came Back: A Delisting Dispatch From the Midwest Wolf Stewards Conference

   

Cute and cuddly, or killer carnivores?  Not many people feel neutral about wolves.  We tend to either love them or hate them.

The week before last, I spent two fascinating days at the Midwest Wolf Stewards Conference in Cable, Wisconsin.  The 100 or so attendees included wildlife biologists, geneticists, one or two botanists, members of various state and federal agencies, and a handful of curious amateurs and ordinary citizens. 

Although most of us were from the upper Midwest, we came from all over the U.S. and Canada.  One presenter was from Finland.  I came from 40 or 50 miles down the road.  On the way to and from each day’s session, I drove through the territories of several wolf packs—starting in our own driveway, on the edge of a territory occupied by the pack based just to the north of us.

One of the first morning’s panelists was Laura Ragan of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  For years, she and her department have been at the center of ongoing legal battles over wolves.  She told us more about what to expect during the coming days and weeks.  Later in the conference, I learned more about what we and our Midwestern wolves can expect during the coming months and years.  There will be court battles, wolves will eventually be delisted, and there will quite likely be an open season on wolves here in Wisconsin.  As this story unfolds, it will be fascinating to watch.  Last week was only the beginning.

But first, what actually happened last week?  On Wednesday, once the order was officially published in the Federal Register, most wolves in the Rocky Mountain region were officially excluded from the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  They hadn’t, however, been “delisted” in the usual judicious and judicial fashion.  Instead, they were simply excluded from the ESA’s protection.  This was done legislatively, through a rider slipped into an emergency budget bill being rushed through Congress.  Some cheered this as a clever end-run around the ESA.  Others saw it as a dangerous precedent.  Either way, that’s a story for another time.

Since I live in northwestern Wisconsin, I’m more interested in our own Midwestern wolves.  In that same announcement, the Interior Department also sought to remove wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan from the Endangered Species list—but this time through the usual science-based delisting process.  Last Wednesday marked the beginning of a 60-day comment period, at the end of there may still be legal challenges to resolve as part of the official delisting process.

Before last week, few Americans even realized there were wolves in the Midwest.  That’s about to change.  But let’s face it…  Until now, these wolves really could have used a better PR agent.  We’ve been hearing about wolves in Yellowstone for years.  We’ve seen dozens of news stories about wolf controversies in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.  But Wisconsin?  How many wolves could there even be in Wisconsin?  Or Minnesota or Michigan, for that matter?

The answer may surprise you.  It’s time to put the numbers into perspective.  The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone was a great success; the park is now home to an estimated 98 of them.  Across the entire Rocky Mountain region, there are roughly 1,600 wolves.  In 2009, amid renewed controversy, they were hunted legally for the first time in almost a century.

Meanwhile, without fanfare and without help from us humans, wolves have quietly returned to Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.  There are now an estimated 2,922 in Minnesota, 690 in Wisconsin, and 557 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The total wolf population in these three states is now well over 4,000—forty times as many as in Yellowstone, and almost three times as many as in the entire Northwest.  Here in northern Wisconsin, my county alone has more wolves than all of Yellowstone.  And, although wolf management and wolf depredations were a key issue in Finland’s most recent national election, my county also has more wolves than all of Finland.

Despite rumors to the contrary that you’ll hear from barstool biologists here in the north woods, these wolves weren’t reintroduced.  They simply returned.  Once they were protected (at least officially, that is), the wolves came back.  Somehow, this remarkable success story has escaped the national spotlight.

Those who love wolves are delighted at these developments; those who love to hate wolves are not.  They’d tell stories of their own, stories of livestock depredation, half-eaten bear hounds, missing spaniels scooped up off the front step, and locally decimated deer populations.  In my neighborhood, you’ll often see pickups with bumper stickers that read “Wisconsin Wolves: Smoke a Pack a Day.”  

During one presentation at the Midwest Wolf Steward Conference, I learned that my county leads the state—and possibly even all other counties in the nation—in the number of reported dog and livestock depredations.  That may explain some of the bumper stickers on pickups that aren’t hauling bear hounds.

Here in the Midwest, wolves were first placed on the Endangered Species list over thirty years ago; in the last ten years they’ve been delisted, relisted, delisted, and relisted again.  The states and other interested parties are currently asking that they be re-delisted.

When wolves are relisted, government trappers can only pester and harass them.  The only exception is for cases that fall under the category of “human health and safety.”  But when wolves are delisted, the USDA is once again able to trap and euthanize them if they’re preying on livestock or pets.  It’s all part of the management plan; in theory, eliminating a small number of “problem” wolves makes it more likely that us humans will tolerate the presence of the “good” wolves that remain.

This rationale explains why even most wolf advocates are now in favor of delisting.  They believe that in the long run, delisting will actually be good for the wolves.  Having learned a little about the science and the sociology behind this balancing act, I’m inclined to agree.  If wolves were allowed to supplement their usual diet with unlimited amounts of beef, veal, and mutton, biological carrying capacity would be greatly increased.  But perhaps wolves here in the Midwest have already reached their social carrying capacity.

For reasons like these, delisting is now supported by nearly all advocacy groups—including the Timberwolf Alliance, which sponsored the Midwest Wolf Steward Conference.  Rumor has it, however, that HSUS and other organizations will be suing to prevent wolves from being delisted here in the Midwest.

In future posts, I may tell a few more wolf stories.  Some will be from the conference and some will be from my neighborhood.  Either way, the stories aren’t simple.  Stay tuned… 

Public hearings will be held May 18 in Ashland, WI. For more information, go to www.fws.gov/midwest/wolf/.  You can send written comments to the Federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov (follow the instructions for submitting comments to Docket No. FWS-R3-ES-2011-0029) or via U.S. mail sent to Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. FWS-R3-ES-2011-0029, Division of Policy and Directives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM, Arlington, VA 22203. Comments must be received on or before July 5.

© 2011 Al Cambronne

Photo credits: Thanks to mycuteanimals.com and lobowatch.com.

About alcambronne

I write about nature and the environment. My latest book is DEERLAND: America's Hunt for Ecological Balance and the Essence of Wildness.
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4 Responses to The Wolves Came Back: A Delisting Dispatch From the Midwest Wolf Stewards Conference

  1. Thanks for this post, Al. I find the various wolf controversies fascinating. Here in the Northeast, we have coyote (or, we might say, coyote/wolf-hybrid) controversies, and the occasional brouhaha over the possibility of mountain lions regaining a foothold in the region. But these are nowhere near as intense as what you see in present-day wolf country.

  2. alcambronne says:

    Yes, it’s fascinating to watch all this unfold. Compared to the wolf controversies out west, things have just been simmering here in the Midwest—even though we have way more wolves. But it looks as though that’s about to change. Should be interesting, especially when some groups begin lobbying for a hunting season.

  3. Karan Birtles says:

    I was drawn to your website by the adorable picture of the cub, so it’s obvious I fall into the wolf lover category. I was very interested in your article and unaware of wolves existing so far down into the US.
    Just as humans have been responsible for creating imbalances in native animal systems through habitat destruction, introduction of nonnative fauna and, of course, hunting, it makes sense that we could be responsible for creating imbalance in the opposite direction by supplementing a predator’s diet with domesticated animals. It’s logical to eliminate the animals displaying this behaviour, or aggression towards us.
    I do hope, however, that this logical step does not lead to hunting. Hunting for food is one thing. Hunting for pleasure is another. On the sliding scale of humanity, this would have to constitute a fall.

    • alcambronne says:

      You’re right. In the case of deer, hunting is our best available means of restoring the balance we’ve disrupted. In the absence of other predators, hunting can–but admittedly doesn’t always–play an important role in maintaining or restoring ecological balance, and the major ecological problems associated with locally overabundant deer are an important theme that I wrote about in DEERLAND. But the recreational hunting of wolves is a very different sort of situation.

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