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Conserving the Nature of America

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.

History of Decline, Protection Under the ESA and Recovery


This Final Rule is no longer in effect.

Information about the Rule and why it is no longer in effect.


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


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 Because the final rule was “vacated” it was no longer in effect and by “remanding” the final rule, the court returned the rule to the Service to address the court’s concern.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 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?
A Final Rule is an official decision or determination made related to an earlier proposed rule.  Both the proposed and final rules are published in the Federal Register.


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 Endangered Species Act allows the listing and delisting of species, subspecies, and distinct population segments of vertebrate animals.  A Distinct Population Segment, or DPS, is a significant population that occurs in a distinct portion of a species’ or subspecies’ range.  The DPS is usually described geographically, such as “all members of XYZ species north of 40 degrees north latitude.”


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.


Map of Gray Wolf Western Great Lakes DPS


3) Why did the Service delist gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes DPS?
We delisted the gray wolf in the Western Great Lakes DPS because that DPS supports a healthy self-sustaining population of wolves.  In the past, human-caused mortality resulted in the near extinction of gray wolves in the conterminous U.S.  With state management plans in place, each of the states will now manage wolf populations in accordance with population objectives, which will ensure survival of the species in the DPS into the foreseeable future.


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:


  • The Minnesota population is at least 1,250 and its continued survival is assured.


  • A second population outside of Minnesota and Isle Royale (Michigan) is re-established, having at least 100 wolves in late winter if located within 100 miles of the Minnesota wolf population or having at least 200 wolves if located beyond that distance.  A Wisconsin-Michigan population of 100 is considered viable because continued immigration of Minnesota wolves will supplement it.


  •  These population levels (outside of Minnesota) are maintained for five consecutive years (that is, for six annual wolf surveys).


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?
Gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes DPS are no longer protected by the Endangered Species Act.  Instead, state and tribal laws dictate the level of gray wolf protection and management.  Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan developed wolf management plans in preparation for the delisting.  Those plans now take effect.


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:


North Dakota – furbearer, with closed season
South Dakota – protected wildlife, no season
Iowa – furbearer, closed season
Illinois – threatened
Indiana – extirpated, no protection
Ohio – extirpated, no protection


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 state plans implement management actions and protections that will maintain wolf populations above the federal recovery criteria for the foreseeable future.  All three state wolf management plans are designed to maintain minimum wolf populations that exceed the recovery criteria identified in the federal Eastern Timber Wolf Recovery Plan for an “isolated wolf population.”


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?
Wolf populations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan will be monitored for a minimum of five years to ensure that delisting has not occurred prematurely.  If it appears, at any time, that the gray wolf cannot sustain itself without the protections of the ESA, the Service can initiate the listing process, including emergency listing.


7)  How will wolves be monitored after they are delisted?    
A post-delisting monitoring plan for the gray wolf Western Great Lakes DPS was completed in February 2008.  That 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. 


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?
States and tribes are responsible for gray wolf protection and management now that the Western Great Lakes DPS is delisted. Each state or tribe must decide whether activities such as hunting and trapping will be allowed.  For example, Minnesota will not consider public hunting and trapping, except for depredation control, until at least five years after federal delisting.  In Wisconsin, public harvest would only be considered if the population exceeds 350 wolves outside of Native American Reservations and would require authorization by the Legislature following major public input.  The Michigan management plan acknowledges that the wolf population may need to be controlled by lethal means when the “cultural carrying capacity” is reached or approached, but it does not propose any specific measures to do this.


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?
The final rule will become effective May 4, 2009.


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?
The Federal Register publication of the Final Rule to delist the gray wolf Western Great Lakes DPS, as well as information about gray wolf populations, is available on the Internet at


Chronology of Federal Actions
Gray Wolves in the Western Great Lakes States