Summary of the Final Rule to Delist the Gray Wolf "Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment"
April 2, 2009
This Final Rule is being published in response to the court’s decision to remand the final rule back to the Service. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs because, in the judge’s opinion, the Endangered Species Act is ambiguous on the issue of whether a DPS can be identified and delisted simultaneously and, therefore, the Service should have provided an explanation for their interpretation of the ESA. To address the court’s concern, this Rule explains why simultaneously identifying and delisting DPSs of currently listed species is consistent with the ESA’s text, structure, policy objectives and legislative history, and relevant judicial interpretations. Additionally, since the court vacated the February 8, 2007, final rule, this rule reinstates the WGL DPS and removes the gray wolves within it from Endangered Species Act protection.
The court merely asked the Service to provide an explanation of their rationale for identifying and delisting a DPS simultaneously, therefore, this final rule provides that explanation but the remainder of the rule is substantially similar to the vacated final rule in form and substance, including the biological and ecological basis for its conclusions. Before issuing the final rule, we verified that no new scientific data exist that would alter our previous analysis of the relevant facts that serve as the basis for the Secretary’s decision to identify the Western Great Lakes DPS and the Secretary’s conclusion that the Western Great Lakes DPS should be removed from the list of threatened and endangered species because it has recovered and no longer meets the criteria for remaining on the list.
Managing wolf populations in the United States
The Service’s action removes gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes DPS from the federal list of endangered and threatened species because gray wolves in this DPS have recovered and no longer need the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The Service also removed critical habitat for the gray wolf in Michigan and Minnesota, and eliminated special rules for wolf management in Minnesota, as they are no longer needed.
Wolf Recovery in the Western Great Lakes DPS
The original Recovery Plan for the Eastern Timber Wolf and the 1992 revision of that plan established criteria to identify the point at which long-term population viability would be assured in the eastern United States. To achieve recovery, the plan called for maintaining and expanding the Minnesota wolf population and establishing at least one other gray wolf population in the East. According to the plan, this second population needed to sustain at least 100 animals for five consecutive years if located within 100 miles of the Minnesota population. If the second population was more than 100 miles away, it needed to support at least 200 animals for five consecutive years.
These recovery criteria have been met and exceeded. The Minnesota population has steadily expanded; the latest count in 2003-2004 found about 3,020 animals, and data collected since then do not indicate a decline. An additional population is well-established in Michigan and Wisconsin, with numbers there of 434 and 465 respectively. Wolf numbers in those two states have exceeded 100 for the past 10 years.
The other major requirement to achieve recovery in the Western Great Lakes DPS is to have protections in place to ensure the continued survival of the wolf population in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan after the DPS is delisted. Each of those states has developed a wolf management plan with the goal of ensuring future survival of the state’s wolf population. Those plans were signed by the head of the state’s Department of Natural Resources after input from wolf experts and extensive public involvement.
Management by States
In 2001, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources completed its comprehensive wolf management plan (links to a PDF), which is based on the recommendations of a wolf management roundtable and on a state wolf management law passed in 2000. The plan includes provisions for population monitoring and management, management of problem wolves, management of wolf habitat and prey, enforcement of laws restricting take of wolves, public education, and increased staffing for wolf management and research. The plan divides the state into wolf management zones A and B, which correspond to zones 1-4 and zone 5, respectively, in the Federal wolf recovery plan. In Zone A, where over 80 percent of the wolves reside, state protections would be nearly as strict as current protections under the ESA, and we expect little or no resulting post-delisting population decline there. The protection provided by the plan to the Zone A wolves will ensure a state wolf population well above 1,600 in that zone. In Zone B, wolves could be killed to protect domestic animals, even if attacks or threatening behavior have not occurred. While a significant decrease in the Zone B wolf population may result, such a result would be consistent with the Federal recovery plan, which discourages the establishment of a wolf population in that portion of the state.
The Wisconsin wolf management plan, finalized in 1999 and updated in 2006, has a goal of 350 wolves outside of Native American reservations. It allows for different levels of management within four separate zones. The two zones which now contain most of the state’s wolves will be managed to allow limited lethal control of problem wolves – when the population is greater than 250 – but in general, such control won’t be practiced on large blocks of public land. In the other two zones, which have limited habitat, control of problem wolves will be less restricted.
The Wisconsin plan also calls for monitoring, education, reimbursement for depredation losses, habitat management, coordination with tribes, and development of new legal protections. If the population exceeds 350, a proactive depredation control program will be allowed in all four zones and public harvest could be considered. Because the wolf population now exceeds this level, the state delisted gray wolves to Protected Wild Animal status on August 1, 2004. If numbers decline and stay below 250 for three years, the state will relist as threatened. If they decline to less than 80 for one year, the state will relist or reclassify the wolf as endangered. The only significant changes resulting from the 2006 plan update are an expansion of the allowable trapping area to one mile (from one-half mile) around verified depredation sites in Zones 1 and 2, and the elimination of automatic habitat protection requirements for all rendezvous sites. Den sites remain protected, other depredation control practices are unchanged, and the wolf management goal remains at 350 wolves outside reservations.
Under the Michigan wolf management plan (this links to a PDF file), wolves will be considered recovered in Michigan when a minimum sustainable population of 200 wolves is maintained for five consecutive years. The Upper Peninsula has had more than 200 wolves since the year 2000. That means that the gray wolf is eligible for state delisting now that it is federally delisted. Following federal delisting, the state intends to reclassify Michigan wolves to protected animal status and will develop regulations to prohibit take and establish the conditions in which lethal depredation control can be carried out by Michigan Department of Natural Resources personnel.
Management by Tribes
A post-delisting monitoring plan for the gray wolf Western Great Lakes DPS was completed in February 2008. The plan focuses on three areas: gray wolf population dynamics, threats to the species, and mechanisms in place to reduce threats. The goal of the plan is to ensure that threats do not arise or increase unexpectedly after delisting. Monitoring will be conducted in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the core wolf recovery area.
At the end of the monitoring period, the Service will decide if relisting, continued monitoring, or ending Service monitoring is appropriate. If warranted (for example, data show a significant decline or increased threats), the Service will consider continuing monitoring beyond the specified time.
Recent actions affecting the status of wolves in the Western Great Lakes
Lawsuits opposing the 2003 final rule resulted in federal district court rulings against the Service which eliminated the three DPS listings and reverted all gray wolves south of Canada to endangered status, except those in Minnesota classified as threatened. Experimental populations of wolves in the northern U.S. Rockies and the Southwest retained their “nonessential experimental” status. These rulings also vacated the 2003 special rules under section 4(d) that authorized lethal control of problem wolves in the Eastern and Western DPSs. Because we had subsequently used the Eastern DPS as the basis for our July 21, 2004, gray wolf delisting proposal, that proposal was not finalized.
On March 27, 2006 the Federal Register published the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Proposed Rule to remove the Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment of gray wolves from the federal list of threatened and endangered species, to remove federal protection for critical habitat for the species in Minnesota and Michigan, and to remove the gray wolf special rules which define the circumstances when gray wolves can be taken in Minnesota. Publication of that Proposed Rule opened a 90-day comment period.
On February 8, 2007, we published a final rule identifying a Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment of the gray wolf, removing the WGL DPS from the protections of the Act, removing designated critical habitat for the gray wolf in Minnesota and Michigan, and removing special regulations for the gray wolf in Minnesota (72 FR 6052).
Three parties filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior (Department) and the Service, challenging the Service’s February 8, 2007 final rule that identified and delisted the WGL DPS of the gray wolf. On September 29, 2008, based on the plaintiff’s argument, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia vacated the February 7, 2008, WGL DPS final rule and remanded it back to the Service.
On December 11, 2008, (this links to a PDF) we published a notice in the Federal Register that ESA protections for the gray wolf in the western Great Lakes were reinstated pursuant to the September 30, 2008 court-order.