A bill to remove the gray wolf from the federal Endangered Species List recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives and will move on to the U.S. Senate in coming months where its prospects are less clear.
Recognized by the federal Endangered Species Act in the 1970s — and long a scourge to farmers and ranchers — the gray wolf population has rebounded in the lower 48 states to more than 5,000, less than 10 percent of historic range.
Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy, R-Weston, lead author of the bipartisan bill, says the law would restore management control where it belongs: with the states.
"The gray wolf has recovered," Duffy told WPR. "When you have endangered species, that's when the federal government will step in ... but when a species has recovered, we give it back to the states."
In Wisconsin, gray wolf numbers hovered at a minimum of 905 as of late winter 2017-2018, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. In the 1950s the state’s wolf population was extirpated through bounties, poisonings and unregulated hunting, but before the state was settled, estimates put their population between 3,000 and 5,000.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must declare the species recovered before they can be removed from the list — and is expected to do so in the coming months, according to AP News. The gray wolf was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2012 by the Obama administration, only to be reinstated in December 2014 by a federal judge.
Duffy’s bill, passed by the current Republican-controlled House by a 196-180 vote, would restrict judicial review of listing decisions.
"The problem has been in the activist courts," he said. "When our judges are imposing their beliefs outside of the science behind a movement to delist, that creates a real problem."
Wolf populations that haven’t recovered should be protected, Duffy said, but "you don't put a species on an endangered species list and leave it there forever."
"The purpose of the law is to help them recover, to populate and then to effectively manage and that's where right now the we’re at the effectively manage stage," he said.
Both environmental groups and many Democrats have said the bill is an attempt to push a pro-rancher agenda after losing the majority in the House earlier this month, according to AP News.
Duffy disagrees, saying while wolves may not seem like a big deal in more urban areas, they are in regions where their populations have bounced back.
"Those who don't live in the area where the wolf has recovered, they don't really get what's going on," he said. "But when you live in the northern part of Wisconsin and Minnesota or go on westward, it's been a bipartisan issue of House members and senators."
Both Wisconsin U.S. Sens. Ron Johnson, a Republican, and Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, have said in the past that they would support similar legislation.
"It's a very regional issue and the senators in the northern states are hearing from their constituents and it's not partisan, it's how do we effectively have tools to manage them," Duffy said.
Duffy acknowledges the clock is ticking, but said there’s still a possibility the bill will make it before the Senate prior to the new Congress taking effect Thursday, Jan. 3.