BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Federal wildlife and outdoor officials announced a new rule on Thursday, Oct. 29, that will remove Endangered Species Act protections for the gray wolf across much of the U.S.
Gray wolf populations have rebounded such that the protections are no longer necessary, officials say, meaning state and tribal governments will be soon be made responsible for managing an animal that has been federally supervised for 45 years.
Speaking at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington on Thursday afternoon, U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt called the rule a "milestone of success."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule will take effect 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register and fulfill a promise made by the Trump administration in 2017 and formally proposed in March 2019. While it will be applied across the lower 48 states, its effects may be most significantly felt in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where it is found in greater numbers.
Having been hunted and trapped over the centuries to the point of extinction, the gray wolf numbered fewer than 500 when it was targeted for federal protection in 1975. Today there approximately 6,000 across the U.S., including some 2,700 in Minnesota.
Whether Minnesotans will be able to hunt or trap for gray wolves moving forward has yet to be determined. Wolf hunting and trapping was briefly permitted in some states between 2012 and 2014 until a federal judge ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service went too far in a previous delisting effort.
In an unattributed statement Thursday, the State Department of Natural Resources said the potential for a wolf season still has to be discussed with federal and tribal stakeholders as well as with members of the general public.
"We want people to understand that wolf management is about far more than whether hunting and trapping wolves is or is not permitted in Minnesota. Our commitment to a healthy and sustainable wolf population in Minnesota is unwavering," the DNR said.
The rule may come as relief to farmers and ranchers who have long complained of wolf attacks on their livestock. In Minnesota, where federal authorities consider the gray wolf to be "threatened" and not "endangered," the U.S. Department of Agriculture still kills approximately 200 wolves each year near where pets and livestock have been killed.
In a statement, Minnesota Farm Bureau President Kevin Paap said it's time for states to be granted the ability to set wolf management practices based on their own "unique needs."
"Minnesota farmers and ranchers needed solutions to address the wolf population in Minnesota," Paap said.
Though some previous efforts to delist the gray wolf have been challenged and struck down in federal court, the animal has in the past been successfully delisted in a more targeted fashion. It is already exempt from federal protections in Idaho and in Montana, for example, as well as in parts of other western states where its population is relatively stable.
Critics of the new rule is too broad, by contrast, and debate persists over whether the U.S. gray wolf population has sufficiently recovered. Even the DNR acknowledge in its statement Thursday that its position continues to be that "a blanket delisting across the United States may not be warranted."
Bernhardt hinted Thursday that the Interior Department may alter its approach to future animal conservation efforts and be more responsive to livestock owners plagued by predation. New animal conservation funds included in for the recently passed Great American Outdoors Act might make that possible, he said.
"We can create a cooperative opportunity with ranchers, landowners, other private interests and states to work together to ameliorate the particular consequences that come to individuals through the Endangered Species Act and at the same time meet the objectives of the act," Bernhardt said.
There will be a 30-day public comment period for the rule after it is officially published in the Federal Register. The DNR is also accepting public comments on its wolf management plan, which was already being developed in anticipation of the rule announced Thursday.