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Gray wolves in Minnesota, 2 other states losing endangered species protection

This July 16, 2004, file photo shows a gray wolf at the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake, Minn. More than 4,000 gray wolves in the upper Great Lakes region are back on the federal endangered species list _ at least temporarily.

Minnesota could offer hunting and trapping seasons on gray wolves as early as next fall, officials say, now that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is removing the species from federal protection in the Great Lakes Region.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced Wednesday that the Service is publishing a rule in the Dec. 28 Federal Register to delist wolves in the Great Lakes region, an area that encompasses Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and portions of adjoining states, including North Dakota.

The rule becomes effective 30 days later, which means management would return to the states at the end of January.

Ed Boggess, director of the Minnesota DNR's Fish and Wildlife Division, said the agency has had a management plan completed since 2001.

"We're ready to assume management as soon as this rule becomes final," Boggess told reporters Wednesday.

It's not the first time the Service has attempted to delist wolves, which now number about 3,000 in Minnesota, the largest population in the lower 48 states and more than twice what is called for in the federal wolf recovery plan. Boggess said wolves were delisted for 18 months beginning in 2007 and then for a short period in 2009, only to have both actions overturned in the courts for procedural reasons.

While another court challenge is possible, there's no scientific reason to keep wolves under federal protection, officials say.

"Gray wolves are thriving in the Great Lakes region, and their successful recovery is a testament to the hard work of the Service and our state and local partners," Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement. "We are confident state and tribal wildlife managers in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin will effectively manage healthy wolf populations now that federal protection is no longer needed."

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said Minnesota's wolf population has exceeded federal recovery goals since 1989.

"We should recognize this as a tremendous success for the Endangered Species Act," Landwehr said. "The state is looking forward to reassuming authority for wolf management.

"We're ready and able to assume management."

Working out details

Last summer, the Minnesota Legislature eliminated a five-year waiting period on wolf seasons once delisting occurs. That means a hunting and trapping season could be authorized by rule after providing for public comment.

Boggess said the DNR has to work out the details.

"We've gotten some clear direction and authorization to proceed with a season," Boggess said. "It could be in effect this fall; it may take longer."

The state's wolf control plan also gives livestock producers and owners of domestic animals or pets the authority to control wolves that wasn't available under federal protection. The U.S. Department of Agriculture currently controls problem wolves as part of its Wildlife Services program, which will lose most of its funding Dec. 31.

The program removes 150 to 200 problem wolves annually.

According to Boggess, the DNR's wolf control plan also will offer state-certified experts to help remove problem animals.

Boggess said hunting and trapping seasons would be limited to fall and winter in designated management zones and harvest quotas would be part of the mix. He said the DNR will consult with state lawmakers on fine-tuning the regulations during the legislative session that begins in January.

Welcome news

Minnesota state Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau, said the delisting plan is good news for northwest Minnesota, which DNR officials have acknowledged is a hotspot for livestock depredation problems.

Fabian said he recently attended a Minnesota Deer Hunters Association banquet near the Twin Cities, and wolves were the No. 1 topic.

"Obviously, the state's deer population has come down considerably and it's become a big, big issue within the MDHA and deer hunters who aren't members," Fabian said. "It's my hope we have a (wolf) season next fall."

Despite the controversy that surrounds hunting gray wolves, one of North America's leading wolf authorities said studies have shown hunting wouldn't affect pups or other inexperienced animals that might lose their parents.

"They don't need to be taught by parents to kill something," said Dave Mech, senior research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey. "That's all innate. If there's any disruption, it would be very subtle; we would hardly be able to detect it at all."

Mech said he has no concerns about the impact of a hunting season on wolf populations.

As part of Wednesday's announcement, the Fish and Wildlife Service will monitor wolf populations in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin at least five years. Dan Stark, wolf management specialist for the DNR, said a statewide survey will be conducted during the winter of 2012-2013 and again five years later.

If it appears the wolf population can't sustain itself, the Service can restore federal protection the species.