In-Depth: Sen. Ron Johnson (D-WI) — who has worked to remove the gray wolf from the endangered species list in the Western Great Lakes region since 2015 — reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to delist the gray wolf in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Wyoming under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and allow wolf management plans based on federal and state wildlife expertise to move forward without legal ambiguity:
“Gray wolf listing decisions should come from state wildlife experts, not partisan federal judges. As the Interior Department moves forward with its rule to delist the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act, the process will inevitably be tied up in the courts by activists who want Wisconsin’s wolves to remain protected so their numbers and territory can continue to expand. Congress should pass legislation to allow certain states and tribes to move forward with wolf population management plans without legal ambiguity, and I’m pleased my bill has bipartisan support to do just that.”
Original cosponsor Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) adds that there’s a scientific conclusion that the wolf population in the Great Lakes has recovered, justifying the return of management to the state of Wisconsin:
“I have supported a bipartisan effort to delist the gray wolf in Wisconsin since 2011 because of the scientific conclusion that the population has recovered in the Great Lakes region and that is why we should return management to the State of Wisconsin. This bipartisan legislation is the best solution because it is driven by science and is focused on delisting in the Great Lakes region, including Wisconsin. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has started a long process that requires review of the wolf population across many states beyond the Great Lakes region, which will raise new questions and likely draw legal challenges making it all the more important that we pass this bipartisan legislation.”
Sen. Baldwin adds, “I've heard from farmers, sportsmen and wildlife experts and they all agree. The wolf has recovered and we must return its management back to the State of Wisconsin, both for the safety and economic well-being of Wisconsinites and the balance of our environment."
Wisconsin Farm Bureau President Jim Holte provided public comments in favor of delisting the gray wolf in the lower 48 states on May 3, 2019. In his comments, given at a meeting hosted by Sen. Johnson, Holte emphasized the need for ESA modernization to protect farmers’ livelihoods:
“Although wolf numbers in our state have long recovered past the point of needing federal protection, lawsuits from extreme animal rights groups have kept this issue in a back-and-forth legal limbo. Our farmers struggle to protect their livestock from the growing population of these predators… The time is now to delist wolves from the Endangered Species Act so farmers won’t have their hands tied when it comes to defending their livestock and livelihoods.”
The Endangered Species Coalition maintains that gray wolves remain endangered in the areas where this bill would delist them due to threats like poaching, being hit by cars and other wolves. Melissa Smith, the Great Lakes director of the Endangered Species Coalition, says:
“If you take away hunting, the number one threat to wolves are other wolves. So they have a self limiting population. They can’t have an explosion of population. They’re too territorial for that. So as pray goes down, wolves get competitive. Their pups almost all die every year. They have a really high mortality rate.”
Similarly, the Sierra Club and a number of other environmental groups oppose delisting the gray wolf, as they argue it’s premature to do so and would pull resources away from full recovery efforts. Jodi Sinykin, an attorney with the Sierra Club Wisconsin (John Muir) Chapter, said:
“State governments across the Lower 48 are not prepared to manage wolves in the absence of national protections. Without a compelling reason for delisting, nor the resources needed for full recovery, we call on the US Fish and Wildlife Service to halt the delisting of the gray wolf until conditions better prompt such action."
This bill has three bipartisan cosponsors, including two Republicans and one Democrat. Last Congress, it had four bipartisan cosponsors (two from each party) and didn’t see committee action.
This bill is supported by the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and the Wisconsin Farmer Union. It’s opposed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, American Wolf Foundation, Wolfwatcher, Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf, and the Endangered Species Coalition.
Earlier this year, Sens. Johnson and Baldwin attempted to remove the gray wolf from the ESA list through an amendment to the Natural Resources Management Act — but the amendment was defeated. After the final bill passed the Senate without Sen. Johnson’s approval, he said he couldn’t support the legislation in the absence of a solution to the wolf issue, which he called “too important to Wisconsin farmers, ranchers, loggers and sportsmen” to ignore.
Of Note: The gray wolf was removed from the endangered species list in 2011 and hunted for three hunting seasons. From 2012-2014, the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources conducted hunting and trapping seasons for wolves. In 2014, a judge in Washington, D.C. overturned the decision and put the gray wolf back on the endangered species list. This decision overruled a management plan for the gray wolf that’d been agreed to by the Dept. of the Interior and several states.
On March 14, 2019, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service affirmed the gray wolf population’s recovery with a proposal to remove all gray wolves (excluding Mexican gray wolves, which would remain listed under the ESA) from protection under the ESA. Under the proposal, gray wolves would be managed by states, tribes and federal agencies on their lands. David Bernhardt, Acting Secretary of the Dept. of the Interior, said:
“The facts are clear and indisputable—the gray wolf no longer meets the definition of a threatened or endangered species. Today the wolf is thriving on its vast range and it is reasonable to conclude it will continue to do so in the future. Today’s action puts us one step closer to transitioning the extraordinary effort that we have invested in gray wolf recovery to other species who actually need the protections of the Endangered Species Act, leaving the states to carry on the legacy of wolf conservation.”
In its press release, the Fish & Wildlife Service noted, “Peer-reviewed studies on a range of factors including habitat and prey availability, gray wolf adaptability (including to changing climate conditions), recovery activities and post-delisting regulatory mechanisms, and predictions about how these may affect the wolves in the future are consistent in guiding the Service’s decision to delist. By any scientific measure, wolves no longer meet the ESA’s standard for protection.”
In May 2019, fish and wildlife officials at a panel in Hudson, Minnesota said the gray wolf’s numbers have rebounded strongly since the species’ numbers declined to as few as 14 in all of Wisconsin in the 1980s. Panelists said there are now an estimated 925 gray wolves in Wisconsin and over 4,000 in Minnesota. Charles Wooley, acting USFWS regional director for the Midwest, called the gray wolf’s recovery “a heck of a conservation success story.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Waitandshoot)