Biden administration backs end of wolf protections, but hunting concerns grow

By Matthew Brown and John Flesher, The Associated Press

FARIBAULT, Minn. – President Joe Biden’s administration is sticking to former President Donald Trump’s decision to lift protections for gray wolves in most of the United States. predators of the western Great Lakes and northern Rockies.

Wolves under federal protection have made a remarkable rebound in parts of the United States in recent decades, having been driven from the landscape by excessive hunting and trapping in the early 1900s.

States have resumed wolf management for the past decade in the Northern Rockies and in January for the rest of the lower 48 states, including the Great Lakes and the Pacific Northwest.

The removal of protections from the Endangered Species Act had been in the works for years and was the right thing to do when finalized in Trump’s dying days, Gary Frazer, deputy director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service for ecological services.

Administration attorneys on Friday asked a California federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit by a wildlife advocate seeking to restore protections, signaling the conclusion of Biden’s promise on his first day of mandate to review Trump’s decision.

But state-level wolf management policies have changed dramatically since the protections were lifted, and Frazer suggested the federal government could take steps to restore protections if the declining population puts wolves back on track. of extinction.

“Certainly some of the things we are seeing are concerning,” he said.

Wisconsin moved quickly to reduce the state’s wolf count, after a pro-hunting group with close ties to conservative Republicans won a court order allowing hunters – some using dogs – to kill 218 wolves in four days.

Meanwhile, the Republican-dominated legislatures of Idaho and Montana have relaxed hunting rules to allow tactics avoided by many wildlife managers, including hunting wolves at night and in the air and payments for dead wolves reminiscent of the bounties that drove them to near extinction.

Frazer said different states have shown a common approach: Legislatures and politically appointed wildlife commissions are taking determined action to reduce populations.

“We are aware that the circumstances have changed and we will closely monitor the reaction of the population,” he added.

The lead lawyer in the lawsuit to restore wolf protections outside the Northern Rockies said he was disappointed with the Biden administration for not responding immediately to state pressure to slaughter more packs.

“Why should we push back the population and lose all the gains that were made before any corrective action was taken? ”Asked Tim Preso of environmental law firm Earthjustice. “The writing is on the wall. Montana and Idaho are clear on their intentions and Wisconsin is right behind them.

Montana Wildlife Commissioners on Friday passed hunting rule changes in line with new state laws that allow the use of snares to kill wolves, nighttime hunting and the use of bait – methods criticized as unethical by some hunters and former officials. The new rules went further than recommended by state wildlife experts, who wanted, for example, to limit the use of traps to only private land.

Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission vice-chairman Patrick Tabor, a whitefish region hunting outfitter, said while voting for the changes that he was proud of his hunting ethics. Tabor said the relaxed rules “leave more opportunities for hunters, essentially giving them a better chance of succeeding because they (wolves) are an incredibly difficult animal to hunt.”

Advocates for lifting federal protections have noted that efforts to bring wolves under state management have enjoyed bipartisan support in Washington since President Barack Obama.

Yet state policies reflect an increasingly partisan approach to dealing with predators in Republican-dominated legislatures.

The wolf population in the Midwest has grown to more than 4,400 wolves, according to government figures disputed by some scientists who say authorities underestimate wolves killed by poachers.

There has been growing frustration in recent years among herders and hunters with attacks on livestock and big game. In Wisconsin, a Republican-controlled board of directors set the state’s fall hunting quota at 300 animals, rejecting a limit of 130 animals recommended by state wildlife managers.

The Wisconsin Democratic attorney general is seeking a court order to oust the chairman of the board, whose term expired in May. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has named a successor, but the incumbent refuses to step down until the Senate confirms the appointment. The Senate, dominated by Republicans, did not hold a hearing on the nomination.

Hundreds of wolves are now killed each year by hunters and trappers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The population of the Northern Rockies has remained strong – over 3,000 animals, according to wildlife officials – because wolves breed so well and can roam vast swathes of wilderness in the sparsely populated region.

Some state officials intend to lower those numbers to curb attacks by cattle and protect the big game herds that wolves prey on. Supporters of restoring protections warn it will tip the scales and reduce wolf numbers to unsustainable levels, while threatening packs in neighboring states that have interconnected populations.

Federal officials are expected to be deeply concerned about state wolf policies in the coming weeks, when they respond to petitions filed in June to return wolves in the western United States to federal protection. .

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