Wolf - Western Great Lakes
Midwest Region

 

Map of Region 3 Minnesota Wisconsin Michigan

 

Summary of the Final Rule to Delist the Gray Wolf "Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment"

April 2, 2009

 

Introduction
On February 8, 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) published a final rule that identified the Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment (DPS) of the gray wolf and removed Endangered Species Act protection for that DPS at the same time.  Three parties challenged the final rule by filing a lawsuit.  On September 29, 2008, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the plaintiffs by vacating the final rule and remanding it back to the Service. Because the final rule was “vacated” it was no longer in affect and by “remanding” the final rule, the court returned the rule to the Service to address the court’s concern. 

 

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.    

 

Background
Since the gray wolf was first listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1974, recovery programs have helped populations of this species rebound from the lows experienced during the middle of the 20th century.  Today, wolf recovery has been achieved in the Western Great Lakes region of the United States.  As a result of this success, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has removed ESA protection for the Gray Wolf Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment. 

 

Managing wolf populations in the United States
Gray wolves were previously listed as an endangered species in the lower 48 states, except in Minnesota where they were threatened.  The Service operates three separate recovery programs for the gray wolf; each has its own recovery plan and recovery goals based on the unique characteristics and limitations of its geographic area.  These three recovery programs have progressed at different speeds and have achieved different degrees of success. 

 

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.

 

Map of the Gray Wolf Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment

 

Wolf Recovery in the Western Great Lakes DPS
The Western Great Lakes DPS encompasses the entire states of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin; the part of North Dakota north and east of the Missouri River upstream as far as Lake Sakakawea and east of U.S. Highway 83 to the Canadian border; the part of South Dakota north and east of the Missouri River; the parts of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana that are north of Interstate 80; and the part of Ohio north of I-80 and west of the Maumee River at Toledo.  The DPS includes all the areas currently occupied by wolf packs in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as nearby areas in these states in which wolf packs may become established in the future.  The DPS also includes surrounding areas into which wolves may disperse but are not likely to establish persistent packs.

 

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.  

 

Threats
In its final rule to delist the Western Great Lakes DPS of the gray wolf, the Service evaluated current and future threats to the species.  These threats are spelled out by the ESA.  They include loss or modification of habitat, overutilization for commercial or other purposes, disease or predation, inadequacy of existing laws or regulations (other than the ESA), and other natural or human-caused threats.  The degree to which future wolf populations in the Western Great Lakes DPS would face these threats depends mainly on how the states and tribes manage their wolves after delisting.  Therefore, the Service evaluated the Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin wolf management plans accordingly and found that the plans adequately protect wolves and ensure their existence in the Western Great Lakes DPS for the foreseeable future.  The Service has also contacted other federal land management agencies and midwestern tribes to obtain information on their likely protection and management of wolves after delisting.

 

Management by States
State management plans that ensure long-term survival of the gray wolf are essential because states (and tribes, as described below) are now responsible for conservation and management of the species.  Those management plans describe how the states will ensure that the gray wolf populations survive.

 

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
Although the tribes with wolves that visit or reside on their Reservations do not yet have management plans specific to the gray wolf, many tribes and multi-tribal organizations have indicated to us that they will continue to conserve wolves on Native American reservations in the western Great Lakes area.  Upon request, we are working with the tribes to develop wolf management plans for the reservations.

 

Post-Delisting Monitoring
The ESA requires that when the Service delists a species, it continues to be monitored for at least five additional years.  If the species declines after delisting, the Service can begin the process to return it to the endangered and threatened species list, and can relist it on an emergency basis, if appropriate.  Most monitoring plans focus on the species’ population size, distribution, and productivity; threats to the species; and any legal or management needs that might be necessary to reduce threats.

 

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
On April 1, 2003, the Service published a final rule that reclassified or delisted gray wolves, as appropriate, across their range in the 48 conterminous United States and Mexico. The first part of that rule delisted gray wolves in parts or all of 16 southern states, because that area is outside the historical range of the species.  The second part of the final rule separated the remainder of the 32 states and Mexico into three gray wolf DPSs, and it gave each DPS a separate listing under the Act as threatened or endangered.  Additionally, new special regulations under section 4(d) of the Act were established for portions of the Western and Eastern Gray Wolf DPSs. 

 

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.

 

Additional Information
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service posts information about the Gray Wolf Western Great Lakes DPS on the internet at http://www.fws.gov/midwest/wolf  Additional information can be obtained by writing:

 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Gray Wolf
1 Federal Drive
Fort Snelling, MN 55111-4056                 

 

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Last updated: February 25, 2013