After nearly 40 years on the endangered species list, the gray wolf made a comeback in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin – and now the animals are back in hunters’ sites.
Animal rights activists are howling in protest.
The Obama administration in December 2011 de-listed the wolves in the Great Lakes Region, removing federal protections for the animals and ceding management of the species to the states.
“Once again, the Endangered Species Act has proved to be an effective tool for bringing species back from the brink of extinction,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in an announcement of the federal decision. “Thanks to the work of our scientists, wildlife managers and our state, tribal and stakeholder partners, gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region are now fully recovered and healthy.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe enthused, “Gray wolves are thriving in the Great Lakes Region, and their successful recovery is a testament to the hard work of the Service and our state and local partners. We are confident state and tribal wildlife managers in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin will effectively manage healthy wolf populations now that federal protection is no longer needed.”
But animal rights advocates say they lack Ashe’s confidence.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service put faith in the state wildlife agencies to responsibly manage wolf populations, but their overzealous and extreme plans to allow for trophy hunting and recreational trapping immediately after de-listing demonstrate that such confidence was unwarranted,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. “Between Minnesota’s broken promise to wait five years before hunting wolves and Wisconsin’s reckless plan to trap and shoot hundreds of wolves in the first year, it is painfully clear that federal protection must be reasserted. The states have allowed the most extreme voices to grab hold of wolf management, and the result could be devastating for this species.”
For a time, after a long history of attempted annihilation with guns, traps and poison, a forested northeastern corner of Minnesota sheltered the last of the wild wolves in the lower 48 states – about 600 animals. Under endangered species protections and management plans, the animals still occupy less than 5 percent of their historical range.
But protections did allow wolves to repopulate in Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and the upper Michigan peninsula. There are an estimated 4,000 wild gray wolves in the Great Lakes Region – 700 in Michigan, 850 in Wisconsin and 3,000 in Minnesota.
Less than a year after celebrating the wolf’s comeback, a hunt has been under consideration in Michigan and hunts are under way in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where sportsmen, sportswomen and sportschildren are using rifles, bows and arrows, steel leg traps and snares to go after their big game trophy – a regal, wilderness icon integral to a Native American creation story and symbolic of a wild, howling America.
“These are magnificent animals. No one can look at them – in person or in a photo – and say otherwise. Now we’ve brought them back so that we could start killing them again,” said animal rights activist Tracey Baxter, who joined in anti-hunt demonstrations in Madison this fall. “What’s next? Spraying DDT on pelicans and bald eagles?”
Despite lawsuits, protests and overwhelming public opinion opposing the recreational activity, hunting is under way with the support of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and under the supervision of the departments of natural resources.
“This is a landmark day in Wisconsin,” Walker said when he opened the inaugural wolf hunt on Oct. 15. “Thanks to the conservation efforts of wildlife officials and the Department of Natural Resources, Wisconsin’s wolf population grow from just a few animals migrating back from Minnesota and Michigan, to healthy and thriving.”
In the Badger state, the DNR issued 1,160 licenses to recreational hunters to kill 116 wolves through Feb. 28. Government press releases refer to quotas, harvests and pelts. As of Nov. 24, 95 wolves had been killed.
In Minnesota, the DNR has offered 6,000 licenses to kill 400 wolves – 200 during deer-hunting season, which ended Nov. 18, and another 200 in the season that runs through Jan. 31. During the late season, hunters are using wire snares that loop and tighten around a wolf’s neck and steel leg-traps that are baited and can be left unattended for a day or more.
Professional trappers with the U.S. Agriculture Department also are taking wolves outside of the state quotas in an effort to control wolf attacks on livestock.
Such attacks, as well as concerns that a rising wolf population will deplete the whitetail deer population, are two arguments said to justify the hunts. There is general agreement on all sides that wolves are not being hunted to protect people.
“We have now reached the point where this public harvest is necessary to maintain a safe balance,” Walker stated. “This hunt will ease the burden on state residents, farmers and visitors who have been faced with the loss of livestock and pets. I want to thank all of the hunters and trappers who are participating in this challenging, historic event.”
Advocating the hunt, Wisconsin state Rep. Erik Severson, R-Osceola, said, “Farmers and landowners throughout the state want to make sure their livestock, crops and pets are properly protected by having a responsibly managed wolf population.”
But opponents say wolves are not significant threats to livestock and recreational hunts actually may weaken wolf packs and increase livestock losses.
“Claims of wolf depredation on livestock are often sensationalized,” said the Humane Society’s Pacelle.
In Wisconsin in 2011, wolf depredations occurred on 47 out of 7,000 farms, with 63 cattle and six sheep killed.
In Minnesota in 2011, there were 88 wolf attacks on livestock on 80 farms.
“Political leaders in these states are all too ready to bow to the pressure and to buy in to the rhetoric and false framing, and it’s the wolves who suffer,” Pacelle said. “It’s yet another example of adverse policy actions by this administration on animal welfare and conservation. It talks a good game of science-based decision-making and sound policy, but in the end kowtows to traditional special interests.”
Hunt opponents argue that the state management plans fail to address the disproportionate effect the death of an alpha female or an alpha male can have on a pack or clan. They also say the plans don’t include other kills in the totals and ignore the impact of potential overkilling in other states.
Legal opposition to the hunts comes from the Humane Society and its chapters, the Center for Biological Diversity, The Fund for Animals and Howling for Wolves, which also stages daily protests outside the governor’s mansion in St. Paul, Minn., and is erecting striking billboards urging “Stop The Hunt.”
“Minnesotans benefit economically, culturally and ecologically by having wolves in the wild,” said Howling for Wolves founder Maureen Hackett. “As a state, we have so much to gain by keeping wolves undisturbed.”
The Center for Biological Diversity and Howling for Wolves sued to block this year’s hunts in Minnesota while a broader complaint brought by the Humane Society and The Fund for Animals seeks to return the gray wolf to the federal endangered species list.
Meanwhile, a Wisconsin case filed by a coalition of humane society chapters seeks to at least block the use of domestic dogs in stalking the wolves. A Dane County judge is set to hold a hearing Dec. 20 on the DNR’s request to train and use dogs to track wolves. Opponents of the proposal say the state would be in violation of animal cruelty laws and sanctioning bloody battles between wolves and their canine kin.
In a Native American creation story, the wolf also is kin to people. In Minnesota, after the state authorized the hunts, some tribal councils established wolf sanctuaries on reservations, where tribal law trumps federal and state laws.
A proclamation from the White Earth Reservation Tribal Executive Committee, the governing body of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, said the sanctuaries were needed because “the state of Minnesota has not engaged in any meaningful management plan before abruptly declaring a wolf hunt season in Minnesota.”
The proclamation told of the special relationship between the wolf and the Ojibwe or Anishinaabe: The wolf – Ma’iingan – is a brother to Original man. The two traveled together on Earth, naming everything. When they finished, they went their separate ways but remained brothers, bound by a belief that what happens to one, happens to the other.
“Over time, both the Ma’iingan and Anishinaabe have shared a similar fate,” the proclamation stated. “Both have lost lands, both have been mistreated, both have been misunderstood and both have been hunted. Yet, both have also survived.”
In July, Ojibwe tribal elder Joe Rose told the Ma’iingan story to Wisconsin DNR officials in Stevens Point during a public hearing on the proposed wolf hunt.
“Our destiny is related to the destiny of the ma’iingan,” Rose said. “That’s part of our teachings.”
In November, hunt opponents from the tribal councils and a coalition of nonprofits demonstrated outside the capitols in Madison and St. Paul, urging legislators to reconsider, to examine the environmental and economical impact of protecting wolves rather than killing them for pelts.
“The number of people who want to view wildlife, who travel for ecotourism, is bigger than the number of people who hunt wildlife,” said Wisconsin wolf advocate Melissa Rolf. “Politicians should understand that the wolves are worth more alive than dead.”
Responding, the U.S. Interior Department notes that wolf populations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan will be monitored for at least the next four years. And, if it appears the gray wolf cannot sustain itself without the protections of the Endangered Species Act, the government can initiate the listing process, including emergency listing.