In a strongly worded decision that has effectively ended the recreational hunting and trapping of gray wolves in Minnesota for the foreseeable future, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell directed her sharpest legal barbs at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
On occasions, Howell wrote, a judge “must lean forward from the bench to let an agency know, in no uncertain terms that enough is enough.”
“This case is one of those times,” she added.
The 111-page ruling marks the fourth time federal courts have rejected the agency’s efforts to “delist” wolves from the Endangered Species Act.
Howell characterized the Fish and Wildlife Service’s rationale for removing protections as “disconnected from and belied by the record,” arguing that the agency misconstrued key provisions of the Endangered Species Act in 2012 when it determined that wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan no longer required federal protection.
That determination subsequently led lawmakers in Minnesota and Wisconsin to promptly establish hunting and trapping seasons on wolves.
Howell also made some pointed criticisms of Minnesota’s wolf management plan, which she said provides for “virtually no controls … on the killing of the wolves in two-thirds of the state.”
Under the plan, Howell noted, land owners and managers have broad authority to shoot wolves at any time to protect livestock and pets, even in the absence of an attack, outside of the prime wolf country in northeast Minnesota. With her decision, wolves in Minnesota can now be killed only in defense of human life or by a licensed government agent.
Howell also faulted the Fish and Wildlife Service for relying on Minnesota’s 22-year-old wolf-recovery plan, saying that violates the statutory requirement of the Endangered Species Act that such decisions be based “on the best available biological and commercial data.”
The ruling, which caught many by surprise, has elicited passionate cheers from wolf boosters and equally vociferous howls of condemnation from deer hunters, ranchers, and others who say Minnesota already has too many wolves.
In a reflection of the latter, more than 200 commenters have taken to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Facebook page since the decision was announced on December 19.
Several commenters declared that the ruling would fuel a spike in illegal wolf killings, while others pilloried Howell as a “city idiot of a judge” and labeled the environmental groups behind the legal challenge “bleeding-heart tree huggers.”
In a response to the more vitriolic outbursts, the DNR wrote that the agency “encourages participation in this discussion and looks forward to an active and positive exchange of ideas. Several comments have been deleted because they encouraged illegal activity or contained personal attacks.”
For wolf boosters, however, Howell’s decision came as an early Christmas present.
“It was absolutely necessary given what I’ve seen for the last three years,” said Maureen Hackett, the founder of the Minnesota-based wolf advocacy group, Howling for Wolves, which has served as the public face of opposition to the “recreational” wolf hunt at the Capitol but was not party to federal lawsuit, which was brought by the Humane Society of the United States and several other environmental organizations.
While the Howling for Wolves’ campaign to suspend the hunt in Minnesota grabbed headlines, much to Hackett’s frustration, it made little headway with policymakers in St. Paul, where a coalition of northern Minnesota lawmakers, ranchers, deer hunting groups and others successfully fended off repeated pushes to suspend the hunt.
“I thought we could work with Governor Dayton, the Legislature, and the DNR but the forces that want to kill wolves have invaded every level of government,” said Hackett, who was particularly critical of the DNR’s wolf management and “duplicitous message to the public.”
It remains unknown whether the Fish and Wildlife Service will file an appeal of the ruling, which would likely take two years, or if it will instead formulate a more broad-based wolf-recovery plan, which would likely take longer.
Nonetheless, Hackett said Howling for Wolves intends to remain active at the Capitol this session.
Despite assurances from the DNR to the contrary, she said she is concerned about the health of Minnesota’s wolves in the wake of three seasons of hunting and trapping, which she fears that may have disrupted pack structured to the point that the animals will struggle in pursuit of their natural prey such as deer and instead turn to livestock.
“I’m really worried,” Hackett said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of anti-wolf rhetoric next summer.”
More broadly, Hackett said, Howling for Wolves will focus its work on changing public attitudes about wolves and promoting awareness of non-lethal methods to dissuade wolves from preying on livestock.
One possibility: providing some of the state’s legacy monies to help farmers dispose of livestock carcasses during winter so as not to attract wolves to the vicinity of their farms.
“We know how to kill wolves,” Hackett said. “What we don’t know is how to live with them.”
In the wake of the Howell decision, Hackett said she is now most concerned about a renewed push in Congress to dismantle key provisions of the Endangered Species Act.