The hearing was the only Midwestern opportunity for the public to give oral comments about a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to delist the gray wolf.
Prior to public comments being accepted, Laura Ragan of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explained the history of the endangered status of the gray wolf and described the last 10 years, during which efforts have been made to remove the wolf from the endangered species list, only to be deterred by multiple court cases.
Given the difficulty the federal agency has had in removing the wolf from the endangered species list, one attendee on Wednesday asked what the odds are of the most recent delisting proposal being successful.
“When you're sued and the judge is examining the evidence, you never know,” said Tony Sullins of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We are trying very, very hard to get it right.”
The newest delisting proposal was published in the Federal Register earlier this month and calls for the gray wolf to no longer be considered endangered or threatened in the Western Great Lakes region. The region includes a core area of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, and a dispersal zone of parts of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio.
Research shows there are now two species of wolves in the Western Great Lakes, rather than one: Canis lupus (the gray wolf) and Canis lycaon (the Eastern wolf). The proposed delisting plan would involve delisting the gray wolf and reviewing the status of the new-found species, Canis lycaon, in its entire U.S. range and Canada to determine if Endangered Species Act protections are needed for the newly-labeled species.
Canis lupus and Canis lycaon can only be told apart from one another genetically.
Bob Krumenaker of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore asked what that would mean for the status of the wolf, were one species to be found endangered, but not the other.
“They act as one entity here,” Ragan said, later adding that if the Eastern wolf would require protection in a particular area of the Great Lakes states, then that protection would end up affecting both species of wolves in the area, given the lack of visual clues one is able to use to tell Canis lupus from Canis lycaon.
Ragan said that dual listings would not be allowed under the proposal, so either both species would continue to be protected or both species would be unprotected.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources questions the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determination that two wolf species exist in the Western Great Lakes.
“We disagree with the Service that a newly discovered wolf, the Eastern wolf, exists in our region,” said John Godzdialski of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources – Northern Region. This opinion comes about due to the gray wolf and Eastern wolf being indistinguishable, that the two species interbreed, occupy the same range, and have been treated as the same wolf, he said.
Even with that disagreement, however, the DNR fully supports the delisting of the wolf in the Great Lakes states, Godzdialski said.
The proposal to remove Western Great Lakes wolves from the endangered species list is a result of threats to wolves having been minimized over time, Ragan said, such as unregulated killing of wolves. A reduced number of threats to wolves have contributed to a population increase and indicate that wolves are not in danger of extinction and are not likely to be endangered in the foreseeable future, Ragan said.
However, if the wolves were removed from the endangered species list, biologists would monitor disease, overall population numbers, and management plans to ensure that the recovery of wolf populations would remain stable and that wolves are not being threatened.
“We want to make sure the population is maintained,” Ragan said.
A question posed by a meeting participant asked if federal penalties for illegally shooting wolves would be changed if wolves were removed from the endangered species list.
“After delisting there would be no federal penalty,” Sullins said. “Any fines that would apply would be in accordance with state or tribal law.”
Later in the evening, Jason Suckow of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Wildlife Services read a prepared statement saying that his employer concurs with the U.S. Fish and wildlife Service proposal. Suckow said he is concerned that public frustration with wolves is contributing to illegal takes of wolves in Wisconsin and Michigan.
Other individuals speaking Wednesday included Chuck Matyska, the president of the Wisconsin Wildlife Federation, who said the group supports the delisting. The Wisconsin Conservation Congress also showed support for the proposal, according to Allan Brown, a representative of the 360-member congress. The Wisconsin Bearhunters Association supports the proposal as well, said Mike Sogge.
Disagreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisting proposal was expressed by Wisconsin residents Amy Wilson, Jan Conley, Christopher LaForge, and Dave Conley, among others.
“Top predators are needed for a viable ecosystem,” Wilson said, while others pointed out their opinions about the delisting proposal being driven more by politics than science.
“Politics should not take the place of science,” said Jan Conley. “I oppose the plan to delist the gray wolf.”
Additional comments were shared by livestock and pet owners, or those who knew livestock owners, and hailed from areas of Wisconsin and from Ironwood, Mich., Bessemer, Mich. These individuals expressed support for delisting.
Those interested in commenting on the proposal to delist the gray wolf in the Western Great Lakes may still do so, though comments must be received by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by July 5.
Comments may be submitted online at http://www.regulations.gov and then entering FWS-R3-ES-2011-0029 in the keyword or ID box. Comments may also be mailed to: Public Comments Processing, Attn: 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.
Another formal public hearing will be held on June 8 in Augusta, Maine, and then two public informational sessions are planned for June 14 in Grand Rapids, Minn. and on June 16 in Marquette, Mich.