Feds considering moving grey wolves off endangered list

File photo A 4-year-old female wolf leaves its crate on Isle Royale after being flown to the island from the Grand Portage Indian Reservation on Sept. 26.

HOUGHTON — Gray wolves in the lower 48 states could be removed from the endangered species list.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced the plan at a wildlife conference Wednesday. They point to the rebound in numbers for wolves, which were nearly exterminated in the mid-20th century and were made an endangered species in 1975.

An estimated 5,600 gray wolves now live in the lower 48 states, mostly in the Western Great Lakes and Rocky Mountain regions, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Michigan’s 1997 wolf recovery plan said delisting should be allowed if Michigan maintained a viable population — defined as more than 200 — for five straight years. The population had dropped to 3 in the U.P. by 1989. As of last winter, there were an estimated 662 wolves among 139 packs in the Upper Peninsula, according to a Department of Natural Resources survey.

Removing protections across the contiguous U.S. might require a larger population than the current one, said John Vucetich, professor at the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science at Michigan Technological University.

He could quote the relevant standard from the Endangered Species Act by memory: “at risk of extinction through all or a significant portion of its range.” The act does not define “significant,” a term that could lend itself to interpretation, he said.

“Whatever it means, it’s very difficult to imagine it means 15 percent of the former range being occupied,” he said.

Based on the states that have regained responsibility for managing wolves, the numbers will be kept near where they are now, if not lower, Vucetich said.

The growing number of wolves have prompted concerns from farmers and ranchers who have said wolves are feeding on their animals.

Threats to human safety have been minimal, Vucetich said. Competition between wolves and hunters for large game haven’t precluded hunting, he said.

“It’s not a zero-sum game, hunting or wolves,” he said. “We can have both.”

Delisting would give farmers more flexibility in dealing with wolves, said Dave Bahrman, director of the Upper Peninsula district of the Michigan Farm Bureau. He said has not had issues at his farm in Alger County, but others in Upper Peninsula have reported greater problems.

MONDAY: With delisting, states would be authorized to allow hunting of wolves, which is considered a sacred animal to American Indians.