Minnesota wolf hunt going to court again

Oct 19, 2012

Another fight is gearing up over wolves. This time, conservation groups are arguing the wolves of Minnesota—the contiguous state with the most wolves in the entire nation—need protecting.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and Minnesota’s Howling for Wolves are going to the Minnesota State Supreme Court to stop an impending wolf hunt. The groups say the hunt is basically illegal and an ineffective means of reducing livestock conflicts. Livestock groups, however, assert the private hunt is useful management that will not damage the state’s large wolf population.

The gray wolf in the Great Lakes region—Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan—was removed from the endangered species list in late December of 2011 and wolf management was turned over to the states 30 days later. Said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Director Dan Ashe at the time:

“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. 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.”

It was estimated at the time of delisting there were roughly 4,000 adult wolves in the tri-state region. Minnesota had the lion’s share of the wolf population with about 2,900 adult animals. This single-state wolf population represents almost half of the entire wolf population in the contiguous U.S.

Following the delisting, FWS will continue to monitor the states’ progress for several years. In the case of Minnesota, a wolf population decline below 1,500 adults in winter could trigger emergency relisting or other federal intervention.

The Minnesota management plan’s minimum state population goal is 1,600 wolves to provide a buffer to the federal minimum population level. Additionally, the state plan originally was to “[defer] any action on allowing a general public taking of wolves for five years following federal delisting,” according to FWS.

This latter detail is a big sticking point for the conservation groups. Though the prohibition on public taking of wolves for five years was removed in the summer by the state’s legislature, the groups contend the move was outside the legislation’s jurisdiction and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was absent in their duties to the public.

“Rushing to open a hunt this fall, the Department [of Natural Resources] slammed the door on meaningful public participation in a controversial management decision about wolf hunting and trapping. Only by stopping the hunt can we ensure that these state officials follow the law and do their duty to protect our state’s wildlife,” said Collette Adkins Giese, an attorney with CBD, in an official statement.

The groups’ position that the hunt—slated to start Nov. 3 with a hunt cap of 400—is invalid and their motion for a preliminary injunction were rejected by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. They have since announced they are taking the issue to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

“I’m hopeful the Supreme Court will recognize what the Court of Appeals did not—that the shooting and trapping of 400 wolves is an irreversible harm caused by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources,” said Giese.

The groups hope the Supreme Court will grant their motion for a preliminary injunction. Without such action, the hunt will be over and done with before another Minnesota court has time to rule on their earlier lawsuit against DNR for allowing the hunt in the first place. DNR has also received promises of lawsuits on the matter from the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) and the Fund for Animals.

Joe Martin, executive director of the Minnesota State Cattlemen’s Association (MSCA), voiced no surprise at the litigative activities of conservation groups.

When speaking with WLJ, he pointed out the wolf was actually delisted in 2006 but the move was reversed following a successful lawsuit by HSUS catching FWS in a technicality.

“We’ve always had wolves in Minnesota. The wolf range covers the northern third of the state and is growing. For the number of cattle in that area, there’s about 7,000 families raising 260,000 cattle.”

By current market value, that’s roughly $900 million worth of cattle at risk.

The Minnesota Legislature currently provides $75,000 annually for livestock losses to wolves. This is inadequate with MSCA estimating the average value of livestock lost to wolves at least double that.

Martin explained the way the loss payments work in Minnesota. Basically, when claims on cattle losses to wolves exhaust the budget set for reparations in a given financial year, additional claims are pushed off to the next year.

Given the small size of the budget, the high population of wolves, and the price of cattle, it doesn’t take long for claims to be pushed off to the next year. Since the beginning of the current financial year, 44 claims have been submitted.

According to Martin, US- DA Wildlife Services have responded to 145 wolf complaints this year, of which 93 have been verified. Since early summer, 179 wolves have been lethally removed by Wildlife Services staff or sanctioned private controllers and private land owners.

When asked about the value of the upcoming hunt, Martin stressed a strategic hunt could be a good management tool, but it was by far not the most important to the state.

“Trapping is really a program that keeps peace in the valley. We’ve said from the beginning the hunt will not solve the problem. The trapping is the foundation and the hunt can complement that.”

Minnesota isn’t alone in its wolf-related activities. Recently, the media-famous “Wedge pack” of northwestern Washington was killed because they had become habituated to preying on cattle. Bill McIrvine of the Diamond M ranch lost over 40 head of cattle, with several more severely injured, to confirmed wolf attacks. Since the pack’s removal, cattle deaths in the area by confirmed wolf attacks have continued, suggesting members of the Wedge pack weren’t the only culprits.

In late August, FWS delisted the wolf in Wyoming and turned management over to the state. The move was called overdue by ranchers and welcomed by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor