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Collette Giese: Question of wolves is again at our door

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Majestic predators still face threats, especially from state officials, livestock producers.
We’re lucky here in Minnesota that we’ve always had wolves in our woods.
These top predators play a vital role in regulating deer and other prey populations, providing food for other wildlife, keeping disease in check and driving essential evolutionary processes.

But it hasn’t always been a smooth road. Minnesota wolves survived the bounties and extermination programs that wiped out wolves across the rest of the country by the 1960s. These programs came to an end when wolves received federal protection. In 1978, wolves were listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened in Minnesota and endangered everywhere else in the lower 48.

With this protection, wolves have grown in numbers and dispersed from Minnesota into northern Wisconsin and, from there, into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Last spring, for the first time in decades, wolves raised pups in the northern Lower Peninsula. Such progress shows that the Endangered Species Act works. Unfortunately, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is again considering lifting the act’s protections before recovery of the wolf is achieved.

In fact, the latest science on the wolves of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin shows that significant threats remain. Researchers have concluded that wolves in the Great Lakes suffer from hybridization with coyotes that invaded the area after the wolf population was decimated. Disease also threatens the wolf population: Recent studies show that 40 to 60 percent of pups are dying from canine parvovirus.

Wolves also continue to be killed by illegal poaching and vehicle strikes. The problem would be made worse by state wildlife agencies that have made it clear that, should federal protection for wolves be eliminated, they would drastically reduce wolf populations.

The recovery of the gray wolf on a larger scale is also far from complete. Wolves occupy a paltry 5 percent of their historic range in the lower 48 states. There are still vast swaths of viable but unoccupied wolf habitat across the country, including within the Pacific Northwest and California, the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, the southern Rocky Mountains, the Southwest, the Great Plains and the forests of New England and upstate New York.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has tried three times to reduce or remove Endangered Species Act protections for wolves in the Great Lakes. Each attempt was, rightly, rebuffed by the courts. But now, in response to petitions from Minnesota and Wisconsin wildlife managers, the agency is again considering taking Great Lakes wolves off the list of protected species.

Bills have also been introduced in Congress that would outlaw any Endangered Species Act protection for gray wolves, including those in the Great Lakes region.

The loudest call to remove protections from Great Lakes wolves seems to come from livestock producers, who view wolves as a threat and will undoubtedly kill more wolves if those protections are taken away.

But there are better solutions than shooting wolves. There are tested, nonlethal options to safeguarding livestock from wolves, including guard dogs, flagging and predator-proof fencing. And when depredations do happen, livestock owners in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are compensated for their losses. That’s not the case for livestock lost to coyotes and other predators, disease or bad weather, which collectively kill more than wolves. None of this is to say having wolves in our midst is always easy. They’re complicated, mobile and intelligent predators that require land, a prey base and careful management. Yet over the decades most Minnesotans have learned to live with wolves and appreciate the natural role they play.

This regional and national journey to return wolves — to the extent possible — to their former range is far from over. Pulling the plug now will not only shortchange the commitment we made to restorethis majestic animal but also the collective commitment this nation made to itself to protect and enhance the wild places that, in turn, help restore us all.

Collette Adkins Giese, Minneapolis, is a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

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