(Reuters) - A federal judge on Friday restored U.S. Endangered Species Act protections to gray wolves in the western Great Lakes in a decision hailed by wildlife advocates for halting wolf hunting and trapping planned in such states as Minnesota and Wisconsin.
U.S. wildlife managers in 2012 lifted federal protections for wolves in the western Great Lakes, including Michigan, after determining that the animals had rebounded from near-extinction. The decision opened the way for state-regulated hunting seasons.
A coalition led by the Humane Society of the United States sued, arguing the decision was premature and would subject the several thousand wolves in the region to liberal hunting and trapping rules that would place their survival at risk.
Federal wildlife biologists counted nearly 4,400 wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin at the time the animals were removed from the federal endangered and threatened species list. Government estimates this year suggest the region is home to 3,748 wolves, a decline mostly due to hunting and trapping.
U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell ordered wolves in the western Great Lakes to be re-listed after rejecting claims by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that states’ management of wolves – including hunting practices that in some cases allowed the use of hounds and bait – would see them thrive.
Howell found that the Fish and Wildlife Service wrongly interpreted parts of the Endangered Species Act by carving out certain populations of wolves to be stripped of protections rather than assessing the animals or species as a whole.
The decision by federal wildlife managers to delist wolves in the western Great Lakes was thus “fatally flawed” since it was tied to “a scientific finding that turned out to be, at best, premature, or, at worst, erroneous,” making the agency’s final rule unlawfully “arbitrary and capricious,” she wrote.
A U.S. judge in September restored federal protections to wolves in Wyoming after finding the Fish and Wildlife Service erred in 2012 in approving a wolf-management plan by that state that failed to ensure the animal’s long-term survival.
Agency spokesman Gavin Shire on Friday called Howell’s relisting order “a significant step backward.”
“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,” he said.
Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb