Wisconsin has a conservation success to celebrate this summer — the recovery of the gray wolf in Wisconsin and Minnesota and Michigan. It marks one of many great turnarounds for wildlife under the federal Endangered Species Act for which an equal share of the credit goes to state leadership at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The gray wolf had largely disappeared from Wisconsin by the 1960s and, when the nation’s first endangered species law was passed in 1967, the few remaining wolves in northern Minnesota and Michigan were added to the nation’s list of American animals at risk of disappearing forever. Wisconsin followed by protecting the wolf in 1975. Since that time, the wolf has had a phenomenal rebound. Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources has been leading efforts to recover the wolf since 1979 by conducting extensive monitoring and management activities, including managing wolf depredations of livestock. In 1998 when I was director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service we first proposed to remove the wolf from the federal endangered species list.
Defenders of Wildlife has been championing the conservation of wolves in America since our founding in 1947. Since 2007, we’ve proudly supported taking wolves off the list in the western Great Lakes because the population is at a level that scientists agree is secure and would likely be maintained at that level. In addition, the states, and Wisconsin in particular, have put in place management plans that give us confidence that wolves and human-wolf conflict will continue to be managed in a way that ensures the long-term survival of this keystone species and helps maintain healthy ecosystems in America’s northern forest landscape.
A different situation exists for a separate population of wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Defenders and many other groups have been working to restore wolves to the Northern Rockies for the last 30 years. These wolves are now providing significant benefits in the ecosystems where they live, including restoration of meadow and wetland habitats, and improved water quality in trout streams no longer overgrazed by elk. But we opposed their removal from the endangered species list for two principal reasons. First, although wolf numbers have increased, scientists have yet to agree on what size population constitutes recovery. Second, we are far from certain that wolves would remain adequately protected across the region. Management by some Rocky Mountain states, especially Idaho and Wyoming, would make it likely that the wolf conservation that taxpayers have supported for years could be reversed by high levels of trapping, poisoning and shooting. That is not an outcome the public should have to accept.
Thankfully, there is a much brighter future for Great Lakes wolves and the northern forests in which they play a critical role, because of the science-driven state leadership in the Great Lakes and the cooperation of farmers who have demonstrated that they can co-exist with even more wolves than occur in the Rocky Mountains. On behalf of our 35,000 members in the three-state region, we look forward to the formal announcement of the recovery of the gray wolf in the western Great Lakes.
Jamie Clark is executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington-based nonprofit conservation group with more than 35,000 members in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. She was director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1997 to 2001.