Questions and Answers
Final Rule to Remove the Gray Wolf "Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment" from the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Species
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 Western Great Lakes 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.
1) What is a Final Rule and what does this one include?
On March 27, 2006 the Federal Register published the Service’s proposed rule to remove the Western Great Lakes DPS 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.
We reviewed and analyzed all comments and data that we received during the public comment period and we made a final decision to delist the Western Great Lakes DPS that was published in the Federal Register on February 8, 2007.
As stated above, on September 29, 2008, we lost a court challenge to the February 8, 2007 final rule based on the judge’s opinion that the Service did not provide a complete explanation as to why the ESA allows simultaneous identification and delisting of DPSs. The current final rule provides that explanation and the remainder of the rule is substantially the same as the vacated final rule, including simultaneous identification and delisting of the Western Great Lakes DPS of the gray wolf.
2) What is a Distinct Population Segment?
The Western Great Lakes DPS encompasses a core area where wolf recovery has occurred. This core area includes northern and central forested areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The DPS also includes Michigan’s Lower Peninsula and portions of adjacent states that are within the range of wolves dispersing from the core area.
3) Why did the Service delist gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes DPS?
The goal of the Endangered Species Act is to improve the status of a listed species to the point that it no longer needs ESA protection. Generally, this means reducing or removing threats to its survival, resulting in increasing numbers and distribution of the species.
The approved recovery plan for the gray wolf in the eastern United States sets forth population criteria that, when achieved, will ensure the survival of the gray wolf into the future. Those population criteria are:
Gray wolf numbers and distribution in the Western Great Lakes DPS have exceeded the population criteria identified in the recovery plan. The estimated population in Minnesota is 2,922. Wolves are established in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin and number about 520 and 537 in those places, respectively.
In addition to exceeding population criteria set out in the recovery plan, potential threats after delisting have been addressed by Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin state management plans. To prepare for federal delisting, each of those states 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 each state’s Department of Natural Resources after input from wolf experts and extensive public involvement.
4) What happens to gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes DPS now that they are delisted?
In the portions of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio that are within the Western Great Lakes DPS, wolves are protected by state and tribal law. The following is the state regulatory designation or status of gray wolves in the portions of those states within the DPS:
In the portions of these states outside the boundaries of the DPS, the gray wolf remains endangered and protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. For more information, please contact the appropriate state natural resource agency about how wolves are protected and managed.
Even though the ESA no longer protects gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes DPS, the law requires the Service to monitor wolves in the DPS for five years after delisting. The DPS could be re-listed as threatened or endangered if necessary.
5) How do the Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin gray wolf management plans ensure the survival of gray wolves in those states?
The Michigan plan calls for a minimum sustainable population of 200 wolves in the Upper Peninsula. Habitat, prey, and land-use analysis showed that the Upper Peninsula can support between 590 and 1, 300 wolves. No upper population limit is specified, but an upper limit will be strongly influenced by “…public preferences regarding levels of positive and negative wolf–human interactions.” The plan acknowledges that in the future, “some degree of wolf population stabilization and control” may be needed and that “some wolves will likely need to be killed under “controlled conditions.” The Michigan DNR revised its wolf management plan in July, 2008. The DNR’s goal remains to ensure the wolf population remains viable and above a level that would require either federal or state reclassification as a threatened or endangered species.
Under the Minnesota plan, wolves will be allowed to continue to naturally expand their range within the state. The statewide winter population goal is a minimum of 1,600 wolves; there is no maximum goal. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources will take appropriate actions to remedy the situation if the population falls below the minimum goal. 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 Eastern Timber 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.
In Wisconsin, the minimum population management goal is 350 outside of Native American Reservations. Because the wolf population now exceeds this level, the state delisted 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.
6) How will the Service ensure the state management plans are sufficient to protect the future survival of gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes DPS?
7) How will wolves be monitored after they are delisted?
Wolf populations in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan have been surveyed and studied for several decades, primarily by the three state natural resource departments, but with assistance from many partners, including the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey – Biological Resources Division, National Park Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture - Wildlife Services, Tribal natural resource agencies, and the Service. All three states are continuing their previous wolf population monitoring practices with only minor changes.
In addition to monitoring population numbers and trends, the monitoring plan will include evaluating threats, in particular disease, human-caused mortality, and any legal or management measures imposed by states or tribes.
If at any time during the monitoring period the Service detects a substantial decline in the populations or a new or expanded threat, it will evaluate and change the monitoring methods, if appropriate, and consider relisting the Western Great Lakes DPS. 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.
8) Can gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes DPS now be hunted and trapped?
The Service does not prescribe the specifics of how states and tribes manage delisted wolves, but rather we ensure that they implement management and protective measures that effectively conserve the gray wolves in their states so federal relisting as threatened or endangered will not be necessary.
9) When will the new rule become effective?
10) How did wolves in the western Great Lakes fare during the 19 months they were delisted?
During the time period that wolves in the Western Great Lakes DPS were delisted (from the effective date of the final delisting rule on March 12, 2007, until the court vacated that rule on September 29, 2008) the wolf population remained stable under state management. The late winter 2006-2007 population estimates were 2,922 wolves in Minnesota, a minimum of 537 in Wisconsin, and 520 in Michigan. Although the Minnesota population estimate is down slightly compared to the previous estimate (from 2003-2004), the change is not statistically significant which indicates that the population has remained stable since the previous survey.
The number of wolf deaths that occurred during the time wolves were delisted closely mirror what the Service predicted in the 2007 final rule. Illegal killing of wolves actually dropped in Wisconsin and is unchanged in Michigan (no data are available from Minnesota). The number of wolves killed by USDA Wildlife Services and individuals for depredation control increased in both Michigan and Wisconsin, but not any more than predicted in the 2007 final rule. The number remained about the same in Minnesota.
11) Where can I get more information?