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Environmental Sciences | Interview with Adrian Wydeven

Interview with Adrian Wydeven

by Melissa Higgs

On January 14, 2009 it was announced that Gray Wolves in the Western Great Lakes Region would be removed from the Endangered Species List, giving management of the wolves to the Department of Natural Resources. Citing the Endangered Species Act, groups including The Humane Society of the United States, Help Our Wolves Live, and the Animal Protection Institute filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its decision to remove gray Wolves from the list. On June 29, Gray Wolves were once again relisted because public comment was not included as required during the previous delisting proceedings.

To further expand on the status of Gray Wolves in the Great Lakes Region of the United States is Adrian Wydeven, lead wolf biologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and co-editor of the book Recovery of Gray Wolves in the Great Lakes Region of the United States: An Endangered Species Success Story.

What do you see as the outcome when the status of gray wolves in the Great Lakes Region is put to public comment? 

Wydeven, Adrian P.
I think most people who are familiar with the status of the 4100 gray wolves (Canis lupus) in the Great Lakes region, will agree that this population has recovered and no longer needs to be protected as a federally Endangered (WI, & MI ) or Threatened (MN) Species. I believe most people will agree that wolf conservation within the region can be managed by the states and Indian tribes. We hope our book will help educate and inform people on the status, history, population growth, and management of wolves that have been done in this region. Certainly there will be some people who will oppose wolf delisting in the region, but such opinions will be based more on philosophies and attitudes toward wolf management, than the population status of wolves. We hope the final outcome will be an agreement that wolves no longer need to be listed as federally endangered or threatened in this region.

What do you foresee with regard to the status of the wolves five years from now? 

I believe wolves will be completely removed from federal listing at that point and be managed as nongame mammals in the three Great Lakes states and by Indian tribes in the region. I believe all three states will have programs for federal trappers to remove problem wolves on farms and residential areas, and various programs will exist for landowners to protect their pets and livestock from wolf attacks. I don’t think any public hunting or trapping will be occurring by this time, although there certainly will be discussions of possible public harvest of wolves in the region. Minnesota’s wolf management plan includes provisions that no public harvest of wolves will occur until at least 5 years after federal delisting; thus some preparations for a public harvest may be occurring in the state in 5 years. Both Wisconsin and Michigan require legislative authority to allow the state DNR (Department of Natural Resources) to hold public harvest of wolves, and developing such legislation may be a long and contracted process. After obtaining legislative authority, the states would need to go through elaborate rule making processes for conducting wolf harvests. I would not expect these processes to be completed in 5 years.

What are some of the differences between the gray wolf population in the great lakes region and the populations of protected wolves in other US locations? 

Gray wolf populations in the Western Great Lakes region probably represent the most secure and highly connected gray wolves in the Lower 48 US States. The wolf population is about 2 ½ times as large as the wolf population in the Northern Rockies. The Great Lakes wolf population is also highly connected to the much larger Canadian wolf population of 60,000 wolves, with Minnesota sharing most of its northern border with Ontario wolf range. The wolves among the 3 states are highly interconnected and dispersers readily travel throughout the area, and several pack territories overlap Wisconsin and Michigan or Michigan and Wisconsin.
The Mexican gray wolf population in New Mexico and Arizona consists of only about 50 wolves in the wild and continues to be a highly endangered population. Intense management and reintroductions of individual wolves is continuing to occur in the region.
Unlike western wolves, Great Lake wolves have a fairly simple ungulate prey base, consisting mainly of White-tailed deer. Wolves in extreme northeast Minnesota feed on some moose, and small elk herds in northwest Wisconsin and Minnesota provide some limited food for wolves. Great Lakes wolves are also not exposed to livestock on public forestlands and encounter livestock only on small private pastureland, thus there is much greater clumping of areas with livestock depredation, and the vast majority of wolf packs do not depredate on livestock.
Physically Great Lake wolves are somewhat smaller than wolves of the western Rocky Mountains, and have a lot more tan, cinnamon and rufus colors, but less melanistic or black individuals. Mexican wolves are similar or slightly smaller in size. Great Lakes wolves have been closely connected to the smaller eastern wolf (Canis lycaon) to the east, and recent genetic analysis suggests there has been some hybridization between gray wolves and eastern wolves in the region.

What do you see as the biggest threat to this gray wolf population if it continues to stay on the Endangered Species List? If it is removed again? 

I believe continued listing of wolves as endangered will further erode attitudes toward wolves within the Great Lakes region. Without delisting, states would have little ability to reduce abundance of wolves in residential and agricultural areas where wolves depredate on domestic animals. Depredation levels on livestock and pets will continue to rise. Landowners will become frustrated in their inability to protect pets and livestock on their property, and difficulty in obtaining federal trapping of problem wolves. Rates of illegal kill will likely increase on wolves. Oppositions to wolves in rural areas will likely continue to grow. It is unclear if human intolerance will be high enough to cause major declines in the regional wolf population, but likely there would be pockets of land that would be unable to support wolves. Continued wolf listing would frustrate efforts by the states to manage the wolves and create animosity toward wolves throughout rural areas. Management of wolves would likely become more chaotic and unstable in the region.
Removal of wolves from the endangered species act would allow more regular management of wolves by the state DNRs. More flexible systems would be in place for managing wolf conflicts and provide better services to landowners, and general acceptance and tolerance of wolves would likely improve. Wolf population growth and range expansion may begin to stabilize to heavily forested areas. The region would continue to maintain a healthy, viable and ecological significant wolf, but would maintain high levels of public tolerance and human-wolf conflicts would be minimized.

How does the book address the current relisting of gray wolves as an endangered species? 

Our book demonstrated that wolves have made extensive recovery within forest lands of northern Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota. Although a few authors may disagree with federal delisting, most would agree that the wolf population no longer needs to be federally listed as endangered or threatened. We demonstrate that wolves in the region have spread across areas of suitable habitat, wolves have dispersed throughout the region, wolf depredations on domestic animals are continuing to grow, and all 3 states have sound management plans in place to guide wolf conservation in the region and will prevent wolves from again becoming endangered. Our book demonstrates that wolves in this region is no longer endangered and wolves can be managed by state and tribal conservation department in a sustainable fashion.

What affect do you and the editors feel this book will have on the opinion of gray wolves and their conservation and management? 

We hope this book demonstrates how an endangered species can recover through federal protection and cooperation with states and tribes. Through the protections of the Endangered Species Act this wolf population spread and recovered across this region. But we also show that the wolf population has grown well beyond the need to continue management as an endangered species. Areas of highly suitable habitat has mostly been occupied, wolf populations are reaching carrying capacity levels, negative human attitudes are growing in portions of the region, and levels of depredation on domestic animals is growing, especially in the recolonized populations in Wisconsin and Michigan.
We hope out book show the importance of high levels of protection for recovering large carnivore such as wolves as endangered status, but we hope the book also demonstrates that when such species recover, more flexible management with, more local controls as done through state wildlife management programs are needed. We hope our book demonstrates that these wolves have recovered and should be managed by the states and tribes within the region.