A group of leading wolf scientists are urging the western Great Lakes population of gray wolves be removed from protections of the Endangered Species Act.
The 26 scientists, including Dave Mech of the University of Minnesota and Adrian Wydeven of the Timber Wolf Alliance, argue the species has successfully recovered in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin and should be delisted.
"It is in the best interests of gray wolf conservation and for the integrity of the Endangered Species Act for wolves to be delisted in the western Great Lakes states where biological recovery has occurred and where adequate regulatory mechanisms are in place to manage the species," wrote the scientists in a letter delivered Wednesday to Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Department of Interior, and Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The scientists' position supports past decisions by government agencies, which has moved three times to delist the wolf in the region, only to be overturned by lawsuits or legal challenges.
The most recent action occurred in December when a federal district judge ruled the states were not providing adequate safeguards to the species.
The scientists' letter comes a week after Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) and John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) introduced Senate Bill 2281, legislation to remove the wolf in the Midwest and Wyoming from Endangered Species Act protections. The bill also would ban courts from overruling the Department of Interior on wolf delisting.
The future of the legislation, and a companion bill in the House of Representatives, is uncertain.
Wydeven said the scientists did not take a position on a specific bill but did support returning wolf management to the states.
"The Endangered Species Act is a wonderful wildlife conservation tool for recovering populations of endangered wildlife," said Wydeven, who worked as a wolf biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources from 1990 to 2014. "But when wildlife species recover, the role of the federal government is to return management to the states."
The wolf population in most of the continental United States declined precipitously in the 19th and 20th centuries due to shooting, poisoning and trapping.
A remnant population of wolves persisted in northern Minnesota and Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Protections afforded under the Endangered Species Act allowed wolves to re-colonize the upper Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, said Mech.
About 750 wolves were found in the region in 1974. In 2014, biologists estimated the wolf population at more than 3,700 in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin. In each state, recovery thresholds have been exceeded, according to the scientists.
"Wolf recovery is a tremendous success story," said Mech, who has researched wolves for more than 40 years.
Some see the recovery as incomplete, however.
"Wolves are found in less than 10% of their historic range," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center of Biological Diversity. "What the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did is draw circles around the areas the wolves have come back. But there are substantial blocks of habitat where they could but haven't yet returned."
Greenwald pointed to the Adirondack region in New York, the southern Rocky Mountains in Colorado and Utah, northern California, the Cascades of Oregon and Washington, and the lower peninsula of Michigan as areas that wolves could, if given the opportunity, establish packs.
"If you delist wolves in the Great Lakes you would undermine recovery of the greater whole," Greenwald said. "We feel the species deserves additional protection."
The list of scientists calling for delisting includes former or current University of Wisconsin professors Scott Craven, Tom Heberlein and Tim Van Deelen, as well as Scott Hygnstrom of UW-Stevens Point, Ed Bangs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Montana, and Gary Alt, former deer and bear ecologist in Pennsylvania.
The scientists argue delisting is important for the wolf population as well as for the future of the Endangered Species Act.
"The integrity and effectiveness of the ESA is undercut if delisting does not happen once science-based recovery has been achieved," the scientists wrote. "When this happens, it creates disincentives for the states to continue to be active participants in recovery efforts and creates public resentments toward the species and the ESA.
"It is important to the overall ESA goal of maintaining biodiversity to focus available funds on species that are truly threatened or endangered."
Wydeven said illegal killings of wolves increase when the species is under ESA protections. In recent years, about 10% of adult wolves died from illegal kills when federally-listed compared to only about 5% when state-managed, according to Wydeven.
"Once a species has recovered, management responsibilities should return to the states and federal funding should be applied to species that truly are endangered," Wydeven said.
"State wildlife managers were instrumental in bringing back wolves to the upper Great Lakes states, and now it's important that they use their professional expertise to make sure that wolves are a part of our landscape for now and generations to come."