Appeals court upholds endangered species protection for Great Lakes gray wolves

Great Lakes gray wolves dodged another bullet Tuesday — in a federal court in Washington.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower-court ruling that in December 2014 restored Endangered Species Act protection for gray wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. That means the status quo of the past three years, disallowing hunting of Great Lakes wolves, holds.

It's the latest chapter in a back-and-forth over the more than 600 wolves populating Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and even larger populations in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Many sportsmen see Great Lakes gray wolves as a recovered species that must be managed — through hunting — to limit depredation of livestock, dangerous encounters with people and dogs, and undesirable reductions in the number of deer. But many other Michigan residents — including those who rejected wolf hunting in 2014 ballot measures — say it would be an unnecessary sport-hunt of a species that isn't out of the woods yet on its recovery.

Michigan held its controversial first, firearm-only wolf hunt in November and December 2013, with hunters killing 23 wolves in designated areas of the U.P.

Michigan voters then rejected wolf hunting in two statewide ballot measures in November 2014. But the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder, at the urging of hunting groups, restored the wolf hunt that year, before the December 2014 federal district court ruling again restored Endangered Species Act protections to Great Lakes wolves.

"The Michigan Legislature passed three separate laws to designate wolves as a game species in its zeal to allow the state to authorize a trophy hunting and trapping season for wolves and to undermine a fair election by Michigan voters on wolf hunting," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, lead plaintiff in the original lawsuit affirmed Tuesday.

Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Patricia Millett's opinion Tuesday noted that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the ability to regulate a distinct segment of a federally threatened or endangered species differently from the larger population — as the service did with the delisting of Great Lakes wolves from Endangered Species Act protection in February 2007.

But such an action, Millett wrote, requires a comprehensive evaluation considering the entire protected-species population. And the Fish and Wildlife Service, she wrote, "looked only at the characteristics of the Western Great Lakes segment in a vacuum."

Because the wolves' vast loss of historical range throughout the U.S. is a relevant factor in determining the endangered or threatened status of western Great Lakes wolves, and other wolf population segments elsewhere, "the Service's wholesale failure to address that factor renders the Service's decision unreasoned, arbitrary and capricious," wrote Millett, who was appointed by President Barack Obama to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals bench in June 2013, taking the seat of John Roberts that was vacated in 2005 when he became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I think it stinks," said Tony Demboski, an Iron Mountain-area resident and president of the Upper Peninsula Sportsmen's Alliance representing some 57 hunting, fishing and conservation groups and businesses.

"We've got so many wolves up here, we don't know what to do with them."

Demboski attributed plummeting Upper Peninsula whitetail deer populations to wolf depredation, though researchers point to multiple harsh winters in a row a few years ago, as well as coyotes and bobcats also preying on the deer.

Demboski said he teaches a pistol class required for those seeking a concealed-carry permit.

"I've had a lot of parents in their late 20s, early 30s ... they are afraid to leave their kids out at bus stops" because of wolves, he said. "They don't let their kids play out in the backyard anymore. They have to accompany their pets when they have to go outside."

But Pacelle said many of the anecdotes offered about wolves are "fabricated incidents and exaggerated tales about wolves to stir fear."

"The downside to wolves is that they occasionally kill livestock," he said. "But the numbers are small, and under existing law, farmers can obtain permission to kill problem wolves."

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette was among the appellants seeking to overturn the reinstatement of endangered species protection for Michigan's wolves. Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said Tuesday that the office is "aware of the ruling and are reviewing."

Wolves aren't eaten, so they're never hunted for their meat, Pacelle said.

"This is just thrill-killing for bragging rights," he said. "That's what the people of Michigan rejected on the ballot, overwhelmingly, two and a half years ago."

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Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or kmatheny@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @keithmatheny.

© 2017 Detroit Free Press


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