Wisconsin, not federal judges, should manage wolf population

By ERIC SEARING | Jan. 22, 2015

Like many families from the city, every summer while I was growing up, my family would pack up the car and take a trip to the hinterlands of Wisconsin. One place that we visited often and that is special to me is Hayward. Going to Hayward meant I could fish almost every day with my grandpa, swim, eat junk and experience wildlife such as bald eagles, ospreys, white-tailed deer and black bears in their natural habitats.

When we first started going up there, locals did not talk much about wolves. That changed as I grew older. In fact, I can remember nights when I would be up late reading and I would hear howling in the distance. I knew what coyotes sounded like, and these were not coyotes. My only other interaction with wolves was visiting the wolf enclosure at the Milwaukee County Zoo, which I thought was awesome.

The gray wolf was never reintroduced into Wisconsin by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The wolves migrated here on their own.  According to a report by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Bureau of Wildlife Management, there were an estimated 779 to 804 gray wolves in Wisconsin during the winter of 2012-’13.  That’s well above the state’s management goal of 350.

Most people in rural Wisconsin affected by wolves just want the ability to protect their livestock or pets. Hunters have concerns about the high volume of predators such as black bears, bobcats, coyotes and wolves in northern Wisconsin and the impact they have on the state’s whitetail herd and elk repopulation efforts.

In 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service removed gray wolves in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan from the endangered species list. That year, Wisconsin created a hunting and trapping season for gray wolves, and the political tensions surrounding wolf management eased a bit. The state’s third wolf hunting and trapping season ended on Dec. 5.

Now, thanks to a Dec. 19 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell, gray wolves are back on the endangered species list and Wisconsin finds itself stuck in the middle of a spat between a federal agency and a federal judge. An appeal of the decision is possible.

The Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t delist the gray wolf on a lark. In fact, the gray wolf’s comeback is a rare example of the federal government doing something well.

Since the 1970s, the Fish and Wildlife Service has done a remarkable job of repopulating gray wolves. It has done such a good job that the service first removed the Western Great Lakes’ gray wolf population from the endangered list in 2007. But thanks to legal battles, gray wolves have been restored to the list four times.

It isn’t every day that a federal agency tries to return control of something to the states. For years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has been working with state agencies to create viable wolf management programs so that state natural resource agencies eventually could take over the management of the respective state’s gray wolf populations entirely.

According to Howell, even though there may be “practical policy reasons” for delisting gray wolves, federal law “offers the broadest possible protections for endangered species by design.”  As Wisconsin outdoor columnist Patrick Durkin put it, even though wolves aren’t “biologically endangered,” they are deemed “legally endangered” by Howell. The judge “found reality illegal,” Durkin wrote. He is right.

For years, lawmakers in Wisconsin have been calling on the federal government to turn over timber harvesting responsibilities for federal forestlands to the state.  You have to wonder if that were to happen, would a “save the trees” group find a federal judge to intervene on that as well?

In a sad twist of irony, Howell’s decision could have unintended consequences and, through poaching, poisoning and illegal hunting, Wisconsin’s gray wolf population could suffer.  Wisconsin and its neighboring states should be in control of managing their wildlife populations, not federal judges.

Eric Searing is director of outreach and development for the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. This column expresses his personal opinion.