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Ashland, Wis. — By most counts, there are plenty of wolves in the Great Lakes Region. Adrian Wydeven is following fresh tracks in northern Wisconsin's receding snow. Wydeven heads up the Wisconsin DNR's wolf recovery program.
He points out a faint urine mark, left by a pair of timberwolves a few days before.
Just over a decade ago, Wydeven knew the state's handful of wolves by name. Today's pack is well above 300. Michigan is home to another 300 wolves, and Minnesota has more than 2,500. By 1999, all three states had sufficient population to end strict federal protection.
Reclassifying wolves gives officials the option of killing problem wolves. It's none too soon for Marcia Mihalek, whose family raises cattle near Ashland, Wisconsin.
"I am missing twelve head," she says from her northern Wisconsin farm. "(That's) a large amount for our sized farm."
If a bear takes Mihalek's calves, she can shoot it. But federal law doesn't let her shoot a wolf.
"All I want is a balance," Mihalek says. "Let me protect my property. I mean, wolves are beautiful. They do their part. But we've got too many, and they let it get out of hand."
Instead, wolves taking livestock have been live trapped and moved. But, according to biologist Adrian Wydeven, there's not many places left to move them.
Wydeven says most of Wisconsin's good wolf areas are filled with wolf packs already.
"So we're just running out of places to translocate problem wolves," Wydeven says. "And we need the flexibility to be able to euthanise those animals."
Reclassification won't change wolf management in Minnesota, but it does set the stage for a process called delisting, when gray wolves will be taken off the Federal Endangered Species list.
Ron Refsnider is an endangered species official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Minneapolis.
"When they're delisted, there would be no federal protection whatsoever for the gray wolf, and they'd be managed and protected by the states and the tribes," says Refsnider.
Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin have each adopted their own wolf management plans. But Refsnider wonders if the states can afford to put the plans into place. And, some of those plans are several years old, and might need revision.
"It's quite possible that some of those states are looking at some significant changes now that they've seen their wolf populations grow," Refsinder says. "Or maybe they've done some more thinking about how to manage their wolves."
When delisted, Minnesota's management plan will divide the state into a wolf zone and an agricultural zone. In the agricultural zone, registered trappers could earn a bounty where there's been a history of wolf predation. That concerns some wildlife activists.
"One of the aspects of the Minnesota plan that bothers us is this payment of $150 to anyone that becomes a certified wolf controller," says Nina Fascione, vice president of Defenders of Wildlife. "It just is a monetary incentive for people to kill wolves."
The reclassification also creates a large eastern district for federal wolf management. It combines the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, with the upper tier states all the way to the eastern seaboard. Defenders of Wildlife worries that delisting that large district will end any hope for restocking wolves in eastern states, where they've been extinct for years.
And, some state plans could open up legal wolf hunts for the first time in 30 years. Minnesota's plan lets the DNR consider a public trapping or hunting season, just five years after federal delisting.
A proposal is expected late this year to proceed with the delisting process. It would take at least another year for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to take the gray wolf off the endangered species list.