U prof supports wolves’ removal from U.S. endangered species list

by Beth Hornby

Wolves – long on the federal endangered species list – might soon lose that protection if a University professor has his way.

Professor David Mech recently became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chief adviser for a proposal that would remove all wolves from the endangered species list.

The U.S. Geological Survey researcher said he hopes to rid people of one of their greatest misconceptions about wolves: that they are endangered.

Minnesota has the largest wolf population of any U.S. state – one that exceeds the criteria of what is endangered. There are more than 2,600 wolves in Minnesota – more than half the total wolf population of 4,100 in the continental United States, said Ann Koenke, an outreach worker at the International Wolf Center.

The federal government placed wolves on the endangered species list in 1973. In 1950, wolf populations in Minnesota dipped to between 450 and 700, according to International Wolf Center statistics.

Mech’s research is geared toward proving that wolves are not endangered and convincing the government to reclassify the species, and it has met fierce opposition from numerous environmental groups.

The Minnesota Wolf Alliance – a Minnesota-based group that opposes removing wolves from the list – is one of 17 groups, including the Sierra Club and the U.S. Humane Society, that sued against the Fish and Wildlife Service about the potential removal.

Their suit argues the proposal should not be drafted because there is not enough information about the wolf population rebound. They also contend that although wolf populations have increased, they could quickly drop again if hunting is allowed.

Applying his expertise

Ron Refsnider, the Fish and Wildlife endangered species coordinator writing the proposal to remove wolves from the endangered species list, said Mech’s research has been crucial to the effort.

Mech has not only written numerous books and magazine articles but has also helped found organizations such as the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.

“I can’t emphasize enough how big a role he’s had,” Refsnider said. “He certainly has the credentials.”

Mech said he has written 10 books on wolf behavior, which accounts for almost 20 percent of the books about the subject published in the United States.

Regardless of Mech’s expertise, Refsnider said, heated debate is inevitable in the intense and slow process of delisting animals.

To remove them, the Fish and Wildlife Service must first announce it is drafting a proposal. Then, public hearings with 32-member groups are held, and anyone interested can attend. The groups take feedback into consideration while drafting the proposal. Once the proposal is finished, it goes to the Department of the Interior for approval.

Mech said many questions arise during public hearings, and the process can take up to three years.

But if the wolves are delisted, states will be responsible for managing their wolf populations, which could make controversial methods – such as wolf hunting – a reality.

In Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources would be responsible for creating a plan to regulate the maximum number of wolves that could be hunted yearly.

Refsnider said wolf hunting has spurred concerns among many animal interest groups.

“I am almost certain there will be lawsuits,” he said.

Center of controversy

Minnesota Wolf Alliance founder Jean Brave Heart said Mech might have too much influence in the government’s decision for the wolves removal from the list.

Brave Heart said she is concerned that wolf hunters will kill too many wolves and disrupt a necessary natural balance.

“We need predators as much as we need prey,” Brave Heart said. “We need them in Minnesota to keep the deer population down.”

Ginny Yingling, chairwoman of the Minnesota Sierra Club political committee, said she is alarmed that the proposal could remove the wolves’ protection even in areas where they are scarce.

Yingling said she does not entirely oppose delisting wolves, since it shows the species has recovered from near extinction, but said Minnesota wolves should not be hunted because they provide wolves to neighboring states.

Despite this, Mech said, the proposal was good for both wolves and humans because there are fewer chances for conflicts with

humans when the wolf population is lowered. He added that farmers already kill more than 150 wolves each year because they attack livestock.