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Wolves ready to come off the endangered species list

From a podium in the upper Midwest and with an audience that included a pack of timber wolves, Interior Secretary Gale Norton made an announcement that a generation ago would have been unthinkable.

"The time has come to take the gray wolf off the Endangered Species list," Norton said. "The recovery of the wolf populations in the Great Lakes area has been one of the most notable success stories of the Endangered Species Act."

Norton made her remarks July 16 at the Wildlife Research Center about 30 miles north of Minneapolis. The non-profit research facility is home to 41 timber, or gray, wolves. Once delisted, the wolf will still be protected, but wildlife officials will have the ability to manage the number of wolves in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

As an example, wolves that cause depredation to livestock may be killed by federal and state officials.


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The wolf was on the brink of extinction in the lower 48 states when it was placed on the Endangered Species List 30 years ago. With the additional protections afforded by federal listing and the benefit of state programs to closely monitor their numbers, the animal has rebounded from an estimated low of 350 wolves (all in Minnesota) to about 4,000 in the upper Midwest, including Wisconsin.

Wolves have been listed on the Federal Endangered Species list since 1974 and the Wisconsin Endangered Species list since 1975.

"The wolf was like a patient in the intensive care ward," Norton said. "Today the comeback is a tremendous achievement for all who have been involved in this process."

The Wisconsin wolf population was estimated at 373 to 410 wolves in late winter 2004. Both the number of wolves and the number of wolf packs has been steadily increasing for the last decade.

With federal officials beginning the process to remove the gray wolf from the federal endangered species list in Wisconsin, state officials are seeking public input on any possible revisions or adjustments to the Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan.

"We welcome the action by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to start the federal delisting process for wolves in the Eastern Distinct Population Segment, including Wisconsin," said Department of Natural Resources Secretary Scott Hassett. "And we are committed to listening to people and addressing concerns about wolves, especially farmers, and hunters who have special concerns dealing with wolves. We will continue to maintain a citizen group of wolf stakeholders, and will provide opportunities for all citizens interested in wolves to have their voices heard concerning wolf management."

Once federal delisting is completed, the Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan will determine how wolves will be managed in the state, according to Adrian Wydeven, DNR mammalian ecologist and wolf specialist.

The state Natural Resources Board approved removing the gray wolf from the state list of threatened species in March; wolves are currently listed in Wisconsin as protected wild animals.

However, while the wolf is listed as a threatened species under federal rules, federal permits are required to euthanize any wolves that prey on livestock. Once the wolf is removed from the federal list, wolves still will be protected under state law as a protected species, but state officials will be able to deal with problem wolves.

The Natural Resources Board originally approved the Wisconsin Wolf Management Plan in 1999. The plan set a state goal of delisting wolves when the statewide population reached 350 wolves.

The plan included a provision that it would be reviewed with the public at least every five years. That process is beginning now (see inset).

Since federal reclassification to threatened status in 2003, the DNR and USDA-Wildlife Services has begun to euthanize wolves that depredate on domestic animals on private lands. In 2003, 17 wolves were trapped and euthanized, and so far in 2004, 15 wolves have been trapped and 12 have been euthanized. Three wolves captured in 2004 were pups that are required to be released back to the wild if captured prior to Aug. 1.

The wolf recovery in Wisconsin has been remarkable on several fronts. First, the animals have come back from the brink of extinction. They were considered extirpated, or extinct, from a certain geographical area, from Wisconsin by 1960, mostly because of fur trapping, bounty hunting and loss of habitat. Before European settlement, an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 wolves lived throughout Wisconsin.

The recovery also has occurred naturally, with animals drifting over the state line from Minnesota. This contrasts to the recent wolf introduction in Yellowstone National Park, where stocking was needed.

But perhaps most important in the recovery, said Wydeven, has been a shift in public perception toward wolves.

"The attitude of the public has been a big part of the turnaround," Wydeven said. "It's essential that people develop a respect and a tolerance for wolves, and that's happened to a significant extent."

Although a growing population of wolves in the state will undoubtedly lead to more cases of depredation, the DNR says it has plans in place to manage the situation. Monetary compensation is paid to farmers who lose livestock and hunters who lose dogs to wolves.

 "Reclassification is something we've waited for for a long time," said DNR Secretary Scott Hassett. "For some time now, Wisconsin has a had a wolf management plan ready for this day."

"Having this icon of the wilderness back in Wisconsin and once again a part of our native landscape is a great success story. Almost no experience I can think of stirs the imagination quite as much as the howl of a wolf on a cold night."

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