US gray wolves rebound but face uncertain future

Posted Dec. 21, 2011, at 8:45 p.m.

ATLANTA, Mich. — After devoting four decades and tens of millions of dollars to saving the gray wolf, the federal government wants to get out of the wolf-protection business, leaving it to individual states — and the wolves themselves — to determine the future of the legendary predator.

The Obama administration Wednesday declared more than 4,000 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin have recovered from widespread extermination and will be removed from the endangered species list.

“Gray wolves are thriving in the Great Lakes region,” said Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Coupled with an earlier move that lifted protections in five western states, the decision puts the gray wolf at a historical crossroads — one that could test both its reputation for resilience and the tolerance of ranchers and hunters who bemoan its attacks on livestock and big game.

Wolves have returned only to isolated pockets of the territory they once occupied, and increasing numbers are dying at the hands of hunters, wildlife agents and ranchers. Now, the legal shield making it a crime to gun them down is being lifted in the only two sections of the lower 48 states where significant numbers exist.

State officials said they will keep wolf numbers healthy, but all three western Great Lakes states will allow wolves to be shot if they are caught assaulting farm animals or pets.

“We now have the ability to kill a wolf that needs killing,” said Russ Mason, Michigan’s wildlife division chief.

Hunting and trapping also could be allowed. No seasons have been set.

Some environmentalists supported the decision. Others whose lawsuits blocked previous efforts to drop Great Lakes wolves from the endangered list said they were disappointed but had not decided whether to return to court.

“We believe the wolf has not recovered,” said Howard Goldman, Minnesota state director for the Humane Society of the United States.

Since being declared endangered in 1974, the American wolf population has grown fivefold — to about 6,200 animals wandering parts of 10 states outside Alaska.

“They are in the best position they’ve been in for the past 100 years,” said David Mech, a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Paul, Minn., and a leading wolf expert. The animals’ long-term survival will “depend on how much wild land remains available, because wolves are not compatible with areas that are agricultural and have a lot of humans. There’s just too much conflict.”

Also Wednesday, the government put off a decision on protections in 29 Eastern states that presently have no wolves. The Interior Department said it still was reconsidering its prior claim that wolves in those states historically were a separate species, which effectively would cancel out protections now in place.

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