TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — A federal judge on Friday threw out an Obama administration decision to remove gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region from the endangered species list — a decision that will ban further wolf hunting and trapping in three states, including Wisconsin.
The order affects wolves in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, where the combined population is estimated at around 3,700. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped federal protections from those wolves in 2012 and handed over management to the states.
U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington, D.C., ruled Friday the removal was “arbitrary and capricious” and violated the federal Endangered Species Act.
Unless overturned, her decision will block the states from scheduling additional hunting and trapping seasons for the predators. All three have had at least one hunting season since protections were lifted, while Minnesota and Wisconsin also have allowed trapping. More than 1,500 Great Lakes wolves have been killed, said Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, which filed a lawsuit that prompted Howell’s ruling.
“We are pleased that the court has recognized that the basis for the delisting decision was flawed, and would stop wolf recovery in its tracks,” Lovvorn said.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Gavin Shire said the agency was disappointed and would confer with the U.S. Department of Justice and the states about whether to appeal.
“The science clearly shows that wolves are recovered in the Great Lakes region, and we believe the Great Lakes states have clearly demonstrated their ability to effectively manage their wolf populations,” Shire said. “This is a significant step backward.”
State officials acknowledged being caught by surprise and said they would study the judge’s 111-page opinion before deciding what to do next.
“It’s an unusual turn of events,” said Tom Landwehr, Minnesota’s natural resources commissioner.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said in a statement that it is disappointed by the decision, which it is reviewing along with Department of Justice legal staff to determine how it will impact the state’s wolf management program.
DNR said immediate implications of the ruling include: Permits allowing lethal removal of wolves issued to landowners experiencing wolf conflicts are no longer valid; the department is not authorized to use lethal control as part of its conflict management program; Wisconsin’s law allowing landowners or occupants of the land to shoot wolves that are in the act of depredating domestic animals on private property is no longer in force; landowners may not kill wolves in the act of attacking domestic animals.
Jodi Habush Sinykin, an attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, which supports science-based wildlife management, said the decision should serve as a clear signal of caution to people who would kill the nation’s wolves.
Hunters in Wisconsin killed 154 wolves in this year’s hunt that ended Dec. 5, exceeding the state limit for non-tribal hunters by four wolves. In 2013, 257 wolves were killed, six more than the limit. Hunters killed 116 wolves, one more than the limit, in 2012, the first year of the organized hunt.
The ruling is the latest twist in more than a decade of court battles over the gray wolf, which has made a strong recovery after being shot, poisoned and trapped into near-extinction in the lower 48 states in the last century. Only a remnant pocket in northern Minnesota remained when the species was added to the federal endangered list in 1974.
The wolf is now well-established in the western Great Lakes and in the Northern Rockies, where the minimum population is estimated at around 1,700.
Animal protection advocates repeatedly have sued over federal efforts to drop federal protections in both regions, arguing that the wolf’s situation remains precarious.
Meanwhile, ranchers and farmers complain of heavy financial losses from wolf attacks on livestock.
A judge in September restored endangered status to wolves in Wyoming, although those in Montana and Idaho remain off the list. The Fish and Wildlife Service is nearing a final decision on whether to lift protections across the remainder of the lower 48 states, except for a fledgling population of Mexican gray wolves in the desert Southwest.
Associated Press reporters Brian Bakst in Minneapolis, Todd Richmond in Madison and Matthew Brown in Billings, Mont., contributed to this story.