The Trump administration on Wednesday said it will act to remove federal endangered species protections for gray wolves across the lower 48 states, once again opening up the debate over how many, if any wolves, should be killed by hunters and trappers.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said it will make good on a promise, first reported in the News Tribune last June, to restart the process by proposing so-called delisting of wolves - removing them from Endangered Species Act protections.
Agency officials said the formal proposal will be officially published in the federal register within days.
It will be the fourth straight administration to pursue a formal wolf delisting, with each effort so far thwarted by wolf protection groups and federal courts that deemed the previous efforts improper on unwarranted.
Livestock farmers and some hunting groups support ending federal protections for wolves, saying the animals have become too numerous and their numbers need to be culled to reduce wolf-human conflicts.
Wolf supporters say that while the animals are indeed thriving in the upper Great Lakes region, state agencies moved too fast to kill too many wolves once federal protections were withdrawn in 2012. Critics also note that wolves have not recovered across a broad portion of their original range, as the federal Endangered Species Act appears to call for.
The Fish & Wildlife Service, part of the U.S. Interior Department, has tried multiple times - through the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations - to delist wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, saying the big predators have fully recovered here after brushing with extinction in the 1960s and 1970s.
Wolves in the U.S. outside Alaska first received endangered species protections in 1975 when fewer than 1,000 remained - all of them in Northeastern Minnesota - after centuries of unregulated hunting, trapping and poisoning. Now, there are more than 5,000, mostly in the upper Great Lakes and northern Rocky Mountain west.
The most recent of those delisting efforts, in 2012, allowed state agencies to hold wolf trapping and hunting seasons for three years until late 2014 when a federal judge ruled that the agency had erred in taking wolves off the endangered list too soon. That decision was upheld in 2017 by a federal appeals court decision, keeping wolves protected across the region to this point.
But the Trump administration said last June, and reconfirmed Wednesday, that it will take its turn at developing a broader wolf proposal that will hold up in court. The Trump administration had promised to have the plan and process in action by the end of 2018 but took a few extra months to start the effort. Similar delisting efforts in the past have taken years to develop.
"Today, Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will soon propose a rule to delist the gray wolf in the lower 48 states and return management of the species to the states and tribes,'' according to a statement from a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service spokesman. "Recovery of the gray wolf under the Endangered Species Act is one of our nation's great conservation successes, with the wolf joining other cherished species, such as the bald eagle, that have been brought back from the brink with the help of the ESA. Once the proposed rule has published in the Federal Register, the public will have an opportunity to comment."
Wolf supporters were quick to lash-out at the administration's plans.
"This disgusting proposal would be a death sentence for gray wolves across the country," said Collette Adkins, a Minnesota-based attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity that last year filed suit seeking more protections for wolves. "The Trump administration is dead set on appeasing special interests that want to kill wolves. We're working hard to stop them."
The proposal would remove federal protections for all gray wolves, with the exception of Mexican gray wolves, which are listed separately under the Endangered Species Act.
The move would have the most impact on Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan - and places where wolves haven't re-settled - because Congress already stripped wolves in Idaho and Montana of protections in 2011 and Wyoming wolves in 2017.
The renewed federal agency plan comes as efforts to pass legislation delisting wolves has repeatedly stalled and failed to pass in Congress. Recent efforts to include wolf delisting in spending bills have failed and standalone wolf bills also have stalled without final action.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimates about 2,850 wolves. The Wisconsin DNR estimates just under 1,000 with more than 500 estimated in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.