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Appeals court backs wolves' endangered status

A gray wolf moves through forested country in winter. (2012 file / National Park Service)

Wolves in the Great Lakes region and Wyoming won another reprieve Tuesday when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said the animals must remain under federal Endangered Species Act protection.

The appellate court backed a 2014 district court decision that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service still hasn’t shown that it properly followed federal laws when it declared wolves partially “recovered” across just a portion of the animal’s historical range.

The federal agency in 2011 officially listed the wolf as recovered in part of its original territory — including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — even though they remain virtually nonexistent in nearby areas where they once thrived. That official recovery handed wolf management back to states and tribes. But wolf supporters sued, saying the animals still hadn't recovered across enough areas.

“Because the government failed to reasonably analyze or consider two significant aspects of the rule — we affirm the judgment of the district court vacating the 2011 Rule,” the appeals court said in its 54-page decision released Tuesday. “The agency has failed repeatedly over the last sixteen years to make a delisting decision that complies with” the federal Administrative Procedure Act, the court noted.

The U.S. Interior Department, which includes the Fish and Wildlife Service, has not said if it will appeal the ruling.

But the reprieve may be short-lived for wolves in the affected states.

Lawmakers in Congress have introduced legislation that would delist wolves in Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, effectively bypassing the court’s ruling.

While those legislative efforts have failed in the past, it’s expected they might pass both the Republican-controlled House and Senate this year and be signed into law by President Donald Trump.

Until then, however, wolves will remain federally protected and off-limits to hunting or trapping in the four states. In Minnesota, where wolves are listed as threatened and not endangered, federal trappers can and do kill wolves near where livestock have been reported killed by the big predators.

Supporters of wolf delisting — namely livestock and hunting groups and rural lawmakers — say the animals have become too plentiful and are causing trouble. But opponents of wolf delisting say state hunting and trapping seasons allowed too many wolves to be killed too fast.

“This decision reaffirms what we know: the wolf is a vulnerable and valuable species and needs federal protections for their long-term survival. The wolf is an important part of our state and nation’s ecology and culture,” said Maureen Hackett, president of Minnesota-based Howling For Wolves, in a statement. “We have known all along that wolf hunting recklessly endangers this valuable asset.”

Ethan Lane of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association said the court ruling shows why Congress should rewrite the Endangered Species Act to make it less restrictive.

“Today’s ruling is a perfect example of the need to modernize the Endangered Species Act. At well over 4,000 wolves, it is abundantly clear that the population in the region is recovered and thriving. Rather than celebrating the successful recovery of this species, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin will continue to be held hostage to the whims of radical environmental activists,” Lane said. “It is now incumbent upon Congress to take action to carry out the proper delisting of the gray wolf.”

Minnesota has about 2,300 wolves roaming the northern third of the state. Wisconsin has about 925 wolves, while Michigan's Upper Peninsula has an estimated 650. Wolves were effectively wiped out of the lower 48 states, except in Minnesota's Superior National Forest, before the animal was placed under federal protection in 1978.