Wisconsin Congressman's Effort to Delist Gray Wolf Raises Concerns

Feb 10, 2015

Endangered status of Great Lakes wolf could come up in Congress this week.
Credit P McConnell

Wisconsin’s divisive wolf story is taking on a new twist. A Congressman from Wisconsin is spearheading legislation to delist wolves in the Great Lakes region.  

Reid Ribble's bill is expected to be introduced Thursday in Washington.  The move has some wolf advocates worried about the predator's future on Wisconsin's landscape.  Others say Ribble's attempt will weaken the Endangered Species Act.

Wisconsin has held three wolf hunts, since the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the species from endangered status, a few years back.

The last hunt ended in December. The quota was 150 wolves; hunters harvested four more.

Two weeks later, a federal judge put Great Lakes states’ wolves back on the endangered species list. She said Fish and Wildlife should never have delisted the predator.

Congressman Ribble is among those saying enough is enough.

“That was a determination that the judge made - the Fish and Wildlife Service believes what they did was in the best interest of the wolf population and that they’re monitoring a population in these states is in fact accurate and warranted the delisting," he says.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for administering the Endangered Species Act. Its decision to delist the Great Lakes wolf followed more than a decade of debate and flurry of court battles over the gray wolf.

Ribble says he’s introducing a bill to give the Fish and Wildlife Service final say. And his plan would put management and protection of the gray wolf in the hands of Wisconsin and other Great Lakes states.

“My bill doesn’t have anything to do with the Endangered Species Act. It just says a court should not be making a determination. And, in fact, if the population decreases the Fish and Wildlife Service can re-list the wolf at any time,” Ribble says.

"A congressional rider or bill that promotes legislative delisting of wolves is not just going to again place wolves in jeopardy, but it will fatally undermine the Endangered Species Act." - Attorney Jodi Habush Sinykin

Attorney Jodi Habush Sinykin couldn’t agree less. She represents the group Midwest Environmental Advocates.

“Make no mistake, a congressional rider or bill that promotes legislative delisting of wolves is not just going to again place wolves in jeopardy, but it will fatally undermine the Endangered Species Act, one of the most successful and well-known environmental laws of our time,” she says.

Midwest Environmental Advocates, along with the Humane Society of the United States and others, hope a petition they sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this month will stave off Congressman Ribble’s bill.

Habush Sinykin says the plan would create a middle-ground solution, by shifting the gray wolf’s status from “endangered” to “threatened.” Hunters could not harvest wolves, but people could kill any that attack or threaten livestock.

Adrian Wydeven says the move to change the wolf’s status comes too late. “If those groups were indeed intent on down-listing wolves that should have been their first action and perhaps should have done a long time ago,” he says.

Wydeven is a wildlife biologist and staunch wolf advocate. He led the DNR’s efforts, for more than 20 years, to grow and stabilize the wolf population in Wisconsin.

In his estimation, the region might have avoided the volatility and legal squabbles that have mushroomed, had the federal government placed management in state hands years earlier.

“I think there would have been much greater acceptance of wolves if we could have done that more systematically 15 years ago and I think this back and forth action has only created more animosity towards wolves and towards the Endangered Species Act,” the wildlife biologist says.

Yet Wydeven says Wisconsin has also made mistakes, since the wolf was delisted in 2011. He says, for instance, it’s the only state that allows hunters to use dogs to trap wolves.

“I think the unfortunate aspect too is how the DNR ran its wolf committee; there wasn’t much opportunity for groups that had questioned aspects of the hunting season or had concerns about wolf protection to take part in the DNR committee,” he says.

Wydeven says he’s not sure a new federal law will end Wisconsin’s quarrels.