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Minnesota petitions to take gray wolves off endangered list

Minnesota agriculture and natural resource officials say they're growing weary of the lingering federal logjam that has kept wolves protected under the Endangered Species Act even though wolf numbers here have rebounded to full recovery.

Minnesota agriculture and natural resource officials say they're growing weary of the lingering federal logjam that has kept wolves protected under the Endangered Species Act even though wolf numbers here have rebounded to full recovery.

The Department of Natural Resources on Wednesday submitted a formal petition to the U.S. Department of the Interior asking the federal government to decide within 90 days whether to take wolves in Minnesota off the endangered species list.

The move is procedural and it's not clear how much the state can do to speed up the federal process. But state officials say they want to see action soon.

"We filed the petition because it is time to have the federal classification match the Minnesota reality," said DNR Commissioner Mark Holsten.

Holsten said the DNR is using this petition process so Minnesota doesn't have to wait for national wolf conservation issues to be resolved before the animal is de-listed. He noted the state's wolf population and state wolf management plan already have been deemed appropriate by federal regulators.

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Dan Stark, the DNR's wolf specialist, said the state's request, if accepted, would push the federal government to treat Minnesota wolves separately than states where no wolves exist. In recent attempts, the government moved to de-list wolves essentially across the entire eastern U.S. -- even where no wolves exist, a strategy that has spurred legal opposition.

If western Great Lakes wolves, or just Minnesota wolves, are considered on their own, the de-listing is more likely to withstand a legal challenge. The petition, allowed under the Endangered Species Act, also forces the federal government to answer the state's request and gives the state an option to challenge the government's decision.

"This [petition] process puts a time-line out there," Stark said. "They have 90 days to decide whether our request has merit. And then it's one year ffom that point to actually take action to de-list. So far, we haven't seen anything definite from them on how they are moving forward. It's been very vague."

After years of studies, review and hearings, wolves were taken off the endangered species list twice in recent years, with management handed to state resource agencies and American Indian tribes. But federal court action last year put wolves back on the endangered species list. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is preparing to restart the de-listing process, this time complying with judge's orders.

Most people agree that wolf numbers have rebounded much better than expected from three decades ago, when the animals received federal protection after being trapped, shot and poisoned to near-extinction in the lower 48 states.

With their numbers down to a few hundred and confined to the Superior National Forest by the 1970s, wolf numbers have rebounded to about 3,200 in the northern half of the state, along with more than 500 each in Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. That's more than double the population goal the government set in 1978 to consider wolves "recovered."

Some Minnesota and Wisconsin deer hunters, farmers and northern residents say there are too many wolves in the state and that their numbers should be culled -- either through public hunting and trapping or by increased culling near where livestock or pets have been killed.

Gene Hugoson, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said he supports the DNR's petition because wolf depredation is an issue for some livestock producers in northern Minnesota.

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Each year federal trappers respond to about 200 complaints of wolves killing or wounding livestock in Minnesota, often from the same farms each year. About 200 wolves are trapped and killed each year. Wisconsin last year received wolf complaints from about 25 farmers.

If there were fewer wolves, there would be fewer complaints, advocates of state wolf management say.

"Since 1998, we have received more than 1,000 claims from producers who lost livestock to wolves, and Minnesota taxpayers have spent nearly a million dollars to compensate them for those losses," Hugoson said in a statement. "We believe it is time for the state to have greater flexibility to manage this issue in a way that reflects reality in northern Minnesota."

But several wolf advocacy groups say it's precisely because some groups want so badly to kill wolves again that the animals should remain federally protected. They say state resource managers are too eager to bow to constituency groups like hunters and farmers, and that could lead to wolves being pushed back toward extinction.

The Herald and the Duluth News Tribune are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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