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Session 2000: Wolf Bill Signed
by Mary Losure
May 16, 2000
Part of MPR's coverage of Session 2000
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Governor Jesse Ventura has signed Minnesota's controversial wolf-management bill into law. The legislation could ease the way for wolves in Minnesota to be taken off the federal endangered species list. But it faces strong opposition from some environmental groups, who may take the issue to court.

For an extensive collection of information about the wolf population in Minnesota, see the DNR's wolf section.

See a larger version of the map.

MINNESOTA'S GROWING WOLF POPULATION has been moving outward from the state's northern forests into farm country in the west and south.

The bill signed into law by Governor Ventura will relax protections for wolves who venture outside the northern forests into the southern and western two-thirds of Minnesota. People in those areas will be able to shoot wolves to protect pets or livestock. The bill also allows people in the northern forests to kill wolves actively threatening pets or livestock.

The legislation will take effect after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service takes wolves off the endangered-species list. The agency has long said wolves have recovered so well in Minnesota they no longer need federal protection. But attorney Richard Duncan, who represents the Sierra Club on wolf issues, is worried about the fate of Minnesota wolves when federal protections are lifted and the state's plan kicks in.

"What you have to do is look at what the state plan does, which is open up a free fire zone in the southern and western part of the state, and liberalizes taking rules in the rest of the state, and ask yourself, 'Is that the type of plan that we should be thrusting an animal into immediately after it comes off the endangered species list? Is that a plan that's designed to maintain the long term viability of the wolf?' I think the answer is 'no,' and that's the debate we'll be having with the fish and wildlife service."

Duncan says without a better state plan, the Sierra Club will go to court to stop the Fish and Wildlife Service from lifting federal protection for wolves. He expects a wide range of national and local environmental groups to join in.

But for environmental groups to win in court, they must prove that turning Minnesota's wolf population over to state management would jeopardize the animals' long-term survival. Wolf expert David Mech of the Biological Resources Division says he sees no scientific evidence to support that fear. He says the killing allowed under the state's plan is so limited, Minnesota's population of 2,600 wolves can easily maintain itself.

"The population could sustain a human take of probably a good 1,000 wolves without any problem for the population to withstand, because they reproduce so fast that each year they produce a couple-thousand wolves," says Mech.

"The better long-range program for the wolf is to allow the wolf to expand where it will in the state, with limited, targeted trapping of problem wolves..."

- Richard Duncan
Sierra Club
Mech expects even under the state plan, wolves will continue to expand their range out of the north woods.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is now evaluating the Minnesota plan. The Service's Ron Refsnider says he expects the service to go ahead with the delisting proposal. He says he anticipates a court challenge, but does not think it will succeed. "We are biologically going to be on solid ground before we decide to delist Minnesota wolves and midwestern wolves in general," he says. "We will be following all the proper procedures, so I don't think we will be able to be successfully challenged on a procedural standpoint. I think there are some environmental groups and some individuals who simply feel that once is a species is added to the federal threatened and endangered list, it should stay there forever, and that simply is not the goal of the Endangered Species Act; it's not the intent of the Endangered Species Act."

But the Fish and Wildlife Service has tried to lift some federal protections for Minnesota wolves in the past, and been stopped by court challenges. In 1978, the Sierra Club and other groups obtained a court injunction preventing the service from trapping and killing wolves unless such killing was limited to wolves causing significant losses of livestock. In the mid '80s, the Sierra Club got another injunction, which prevented sport hunting of Minnesota wolves. Those injunctions are still in place.

Attorney for the Sierra Club, Richard Duncan, says in those cases, the courts rejected many of the arguments made by the Service and federal wolf experts. Instead, courts have required more care to insure the long term survival of the wolf. "The better long-range program for the wolf is to allow the wolf to expand where it will in the state, with limited, targeted trapping of problem wolves, compensation for landowners who actually suffer wolf losses, to manage those wolf human conflicts with a limited amount of damage to the animal," Duncan says.

Not all environmental groups oppose Minnesota's wolf-management plan. The nation's largest conservation organization, the National Wildlife Federation, has come out in favor of it. Other environmental groups are waiting for more details before they decide whether to oppose or support taking the wolf off the endangered-species list under the state plan. The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to make a delisting proposal as early as this fall. After that, the Service has one year in which to make the final decision.