Is Wisconsin’s Grey Wolf an endangered species?

On March 6, 2019 Middle Wisconsin received the following press release from Wisconsin State Senator Tom Tiffany (R Minocqua):

Contact: Senator Tom Tiffany FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Phone: (608) 266-2509 March 6, 2019

Senator Tiffany’s Statement on the Plan to Lift Wolf Protections

MADISON, Wis. – State Senator Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) released this statement following reports the U.S. Department of Interior plans to lift endangered species protections:

“I absolutely agree with Secretary Bernhardt’s decision to remove endangered species protections for the gray wolf. For several years, the state’s wolf population has gone unmanaged. Many of the state’s top biologists believe the species has recovered and delisting is long-overdue. Wisconsin has a proven track record of successful wolf management, and it is about time the federal government returned management authority back to the states instead of forcing us to rely on bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.”

While it is not the intent of Middle Wisconsin to question the presence or lack of wisdom in removing endangered species protection for the gray wolf, Senator Tiffany’s press release raises serious issues and questions in need of address. It is also an excellent example of how language, whether intentional or not, can be used to gloss over or avoid more in-depth discussion. Let us look at the press release:

No mention is made about the history, motives and integrity of US Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. The following statements from the Wilderness Society are but a small sample of concerns about Bernhardt’s ability to make wise or unbiased decisions regarding endangered species or the environment:

  • “As a high-ranking staffer at the Department of the Interior under President George W. Bush, he [Bernhardt] presided over–and may have contributed to—a report to Congress that misrepresented scientific information about the importance of the Arctic Refuge coastal plain to caribou herds, in an apparent attempt to downplay potential impacts of drilling.”
  • “In 2007, Julie MacDonald, the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, resigned following reports that she rejected or heavily edited scientists’ advice on which animals and plants to recommend for protection under the Endangered Species Act (including the greater sage-grouse). She had acted as a virtual in-house advocate for special interests, urging staff to weigh the opinion of ranchers and others while mocking scientific concerns. Bernhardt stood by her in his capacity as Interior solicitor, casting doubt on his ability to prioritize sound science over political considerations.”
  • “[Bernhardt] Was a catalyst behind the recent Trump administration decision to roll back key protections for the greater sage-grouse and push to allow drilling and mining in their wildlife-rich habitat. The sage-grouse plans are considered the product of one of the largest landscape conservation efforts in U.S. history, with broad and varied stakeholders, but they were fiercely opposed by oil and gas interests—including some of Bernhardt’s former clients.”
  • “As [former Interior Secretary] Zinke’s deputy, [Bernhardt] has personally overseen efforts to eliminate environmental protections and suggested the agency will aggressively cut protections under the Endangered Species Act.”
  • “A longtime special interest lobbyist and DC insider prior to joining the Trump administration, Bernhardt has continually undermined science and tried to shut the public out of decision-making while making it easier for energy companies to drill, mine and pollute.”
  • “[Bernhardt] Has pushed intradepartmental rules some criticize as being designed to cherry-pick the science that goes into Interior policy and imposed arbitrary limits on environmental analysis and public input concerning how public lands and waters are managed.”

This all begs the questions. . . Is Secretary Bernhardt really an individual who should be given the authority to make decisions about the gray wolf? Was Secretary Bernhardt specifically given his position to undermine the very department he is supposed to support?

Senator Tiffany then goes on to say that “Many of the state’s top biologists believe the species has recovered and delisting is long-overdue.” This raises additional questions. . . Who specifically are these “top biologists?” What are their names, what are their specific professional career positions, and what is their specific training in wolves or other endangered species? What are the names of other “top biologists” who feel the wolf should not be delisted?

Senator Tiffany ends his press release by stating that “Wisconsin has a proven track record of successful wolf management, and it is about time the federal government returned management authority back to the states instead of forcing us to rely on bureaucrats in Washington, D.C.”

That “Wisconsin has a proven track record of successful wolf management” is certainly open to debate. Going back a short time in history, the wolf had been hunted to virtual extinction in Wisconsin by the mid 1900’s. A bounty had been place on the wolf and millions of state dollars had been spent in eradication efforts. The wolf received protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1974, and by 1989 DNR biologists estimated wolves migrating into Wisconsin from northern Minnesota had raised the state’s wolf population to about 80. By the early 2000’s the population estimates ranged in the neighborhood of 300.

Fast forward to 2012 when the wolf was delisted from federal endangered species protection and management was returned to the states. It was well known that when Cathy Stepp, appointed as Wisconsin DNR Secretary under Governor Scott Walker, formed the committee charged with setting the rules for hunting and trapping wolves, she largely avoided allowing anyone opposed to wolf hunting to be part of the group. Wisconsin became the only state in the nation to allow the use of hounds when hunting wolves.

Because so many of the animals were hunted, trapped and killed and because the Human Society raised so many concerns about the cruelty of hunting wolves with hounds, in 2014 a federal court reinstated protection for the wolf.

As stated at the beginning, it is not the intent of this article to question the wisdom of delisting the wolf. But there are serious questions about whether the decision has been made on sound science or on irrational emotion and political expediency.