Most everyone agrees wolves are doing well in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But there's broad disagreement on how many wolves there should be here and how much further they should be allowed to range before federal protections are relaxed.
The judge's decision ended a string of sport hunting and trapping seasons in each state, with this fall the first time since 2011 that wolves haven't been legally killed across the region.
The court ruling made killing wolves illegal for almost any reason in Michigan and Wisconsin, and allows only federally approved trappers to take wolves in Minnesota near where livestock have been killed.
After the court ruling several bills were introduced in Congress to bypass the judge's order and allow state wildlife agencies to reopen hunting and trapping seasons in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
So far those bills have stalled. But several lawmakers say they support a wolf delisting amendment, or rider, to be included in one of 12 budget bills now working through the House, most likely one funding the Interior Department. (Green groups are warning of a flurry of anti-environment, anti-regulatory riders in the same bills.)
Those provisions almost certainly would pass the House and would be harder for the Senate or president to nix. U.S. Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Reid Ribble, R-Wis., are pushing the wolf amendment, saying wolf management belongs in the hands of state wildlife agencies. U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., agrees.
"Congressman Nolan supports including the rider just as he has supported it in previous standalone Interior spending bills,'' said Steve Johnson, a spokesman for Nolan. "That said, if the measure is included in an omnibus bill to fund the entire government, he would obviously need to review that entire final bill before deciding how to vote."
Wolf advocates say adding policy riders to budget bills is a mistake and that state wildlife agencies can't be trusted to preserve wolf populations.
"It's sneaky and undemocratic and it's a way to avoid public scrutiny. This is the only way they can pass bad policy that would never be able to pass on its own," said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity in Minnesota which helped push for restored wolf protections. "We could see it (wolf legislation) as a rider on a budget bill any week now, and that's bad news for wolves."
JUDGE'S RULING APPEALED
As Congress mulls action, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken the lower court's order to the U.S. Court of Appeals, with support from several hunting and livestock groups and some states seeking to see wolves off the endangered list.
Briefs have been filed in the appeal but no hearing has been scheduled. Assuming they will win the appeal, agency officials have not yet started to develop a new Great Lakes region wolf management plan that might be acceptable to the judge.
To make the situation even more divisive, and confusing, dueling groups of scientists support opposite viewpoints on what should happen to the wolf one favoring delisting and another advocating ongoing protections.
Minnesota wolf researcher L. David Mech, Wisconsin wolf expert Adrian Wydeven and a dozen other leading wolf researchers released a letter in November supporting wolf delisting in the Great Lakes, saying the big carnivore had biologically recovered in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.
"The integrity and effectiveness of the (Endangered Species Act) is undercut if delisting does not happen once science-based recovery has been achieved," the scientists wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe.
But twice this year another group of wildlife experts wrote letters saying wolves still need the full protection of federal law to more fully recover in more states. In one case more than 70 wildlife scientists signed a letter calling for continued federal protection.
In an open letter to Congress, the scientists urged lawmakers to "oppose any legislation to remove the gray wolf (Canis lupus) from protections under the ESA. Wolves are an enormous asset to the biological diversity of our country and are well-tolerated by the American public. After decades of making excellent progress toward recovery, it would be a shame to stop before the final goal is accomplished."
There are now an estimated 2,200 wolves in Minnesota and about 600 each in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.
FOR NOW, BACK TO THE '70S
The wolf issue was thrust back into the limelight on Dec. 19 last year when federal Judge Beryl A. Howell in Washington, D.C., sided with animal advocacy groups in a 111-page decision. The judge said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went too far in 2012 by removing federal protections for wolves across nine Great Lakes states, including six states where there are no wolves.
The judge ruled that wolves in the Great Lakes states immediately be placed back under the protections of the original 1978 ruling to protect the animals, which had been hunted, trapped and harassed to near extinction at the time. By the late 1970s only a few hundred wolves remained in the continental United States, nearly all in Minnesota's Superior National Forest.
Under federal protections for three decades, wolf numbers rebounded in Minnesota, with the animals spreading into Wisconsin and Michigan. State and federal wildlife managers agreed that, by 2012, wolves had recovered well beyond expectations in the region, leading the Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the Great Lakes region a "distinct population" of gray wolf that had "recovered" under the terms of the Endangered Species Act.
The move was praised by sporting and farming groups that wanted to thin the wolf population, and Minnesota and Wisconsin state resource agencies immediately instituted hunting and trapping seasons in 2012. Seasons were held again in 2013 and 2014, with hundreds of wolves killed across the region.
The Humane Society of the United States filed suit in 2014, saying the animals hadn't fully recovered in all areas they once roamed, and that the Fish and Wildlife Service was wrongly carving out a small, successful population in just three states and excluding any recovery across a vast area of their former range where no wolves exist.
The court action one year ago redesignated Minnesota wolves officially "threatened," with Wisconsin and Michigan wolves listed as "endangered." The distinction allows a limited culling of wolves in Minnesota through targeted trapping near livestock, but no sport hunting or trapping seasons here.
It's unclear if and when wolves may be hunted again.
"We stopped the excessive harvest by the states for one year at least. But we still don't have a long-term victory," Adkins Giese said. "The best-case scenario is that the court decision gets upheld, Congress stays out (of wildlife management) and we get the Fish and Wildlife Service to draft a new rule that protects wolves."