TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Five groups sued the government Monday for removing more than 4,000 gray wolves in the upper Great Lakes region from the endangered list, prolonging a dispute over whether the predator can survive without federal protection.
Despite the wolf’s comeback from near-extinction in the region over the past two decades, some activists insist it remains vulnerable. The lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeks an injunction returning Great Lakes wolves to the endangered list while the case is heard.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped federal protections last month, as the Obama administration upheld a Bush-era finding that the wolf could survive under state management. The animal protection and environmental groups disagreed.
“This is a species that was driven to the brink of extinction on the states’ watch,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, a vice president of The Humane Society of the United States.
Management plans crafted by Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin presently do not allow wolves to be hunted or trapped, although farmers and pet owners can kill wolves attacking domestic animals. But the plans leave the door open for future hunts and other measures that could reduce wolf numbers by up to 50 percent, Lovvorn said.
Georgia Parham, spokeswoman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the region’s wolves had met population goals and other criteria for removal from the list.
“We have to look at whether the (state) plans continue to ensure the survivability of the wolf,” Parham said. “We believe the plans do that.”
Gray wolves were listed as endangered in 1974. They had been wiped out across most of the lower 48 states by hunting and government-sponsored poisoning, although a remnant population survived in northern Minnesota.
By the late 1980s, some of those wolves had migrated into Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where they rapidly spread. About 3,000 are believed to live in Minnesota. Michigan has roughly 580 and Wisconsin’s latest estimate is 626 to 662 wolves.
State officials said they had no intention of trying to cut their numbers in half.
Michigan’s plan has no population target because wildlife managers believe a better strategy is to focus on eliminating wolves that repeatedly prey on livestock and pets, said Pet Lederle, research supervisor with the Department of Natural Resources.
“If we have one wolf and he’s causing a lot of problems, maybe we’ve got one too many,” he said. “But if we have 500 and they’re causing no problems, who’s to say that’s too many?”
Wisconsin’s DNR also emphasizes dealing with problem wolves, spokesman Adam Collins said.
“We believe the decision to delist the wolf was responsible and the right move,” he said. “We will work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to defend against the lawsuit.”
Minnesota sets a minimum target of 1,600 but has no limit on wolf numbers, said Dan Stark, the state DNR’s wolf specialist. No state-sponsored hunting or trapping will take place for at least five years after the animal’s removal from the endangered list, he said.
The suit also contends the government misapplied part of the law that allows special protections for population segments that might be endangered even if an entire species is not.
The Fish and Wildlife Service turned the provision on its head by creating a distinct population segment — Great Lakes wolves — to remove protections instead of enhance them, said Michael Robinson, conservation advocate for the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The safety net has been pulled out from under these animals before they are really safe,” he said.
Also joining the suit were Help Our Wolves Live, Friends of Animals and Their Environment, and Born Free USA.
Some of the groups joined a suit filed earlier this month against the Fish and Wildlife Service for dropping more than 1,300 wolves in Montana and Idaho from the endangered list.
Wolves retain federal protection in Wyoming because the government says that state’s protections are too weak.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.