Great Lakes Wolves Are Ready to Be Delisted; Will the Fish and Wildlife Service Screw It Up?

western Great Lakes wolves (USFWS)

By any measure, the recovery of wolves in the western Great Lakes is remarkable.  From a tiny population of a few hundred individuals once confined to a remote corner of Minnesota, gray wolves in the Midwest now number over 4,000 strong.  Breeding wolf populations can be found not only in Minnesota, but much of Wisconsin and in both the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan.  Wolves are regularly documented in the Dakotas and individuals have even made their way to Illinois.  With them, they have brought a little bit of wildness and, as top predators, a host of ecological benefits.

It’s funny, during the debate over wolf recovery in the Northern Rockies, critics often painted wolf advocates as out-of-touch coastal elites.  “If you like wolves so much,” they would say, “you should have them in your own backyard.”  At one point some Idaho legislators even offered to transplant its wolves to other States.  But there were always more wolves here in the Midwest than in the Northern Rockies.  I can drive a few hours from my office in downtown Chicago and be in wolf country.

As NRDC has long maintained, this is exactly what a scientifically based, recovered wolf population looks like -- a connected population of 2,000 -- 6,000 individuals.  And on Tuesday, we filed a comment letter that said so.  Great Lakes wolves are ready to be removed from the endangered species list.  There is remarkable (albeit not universal) consensus on this point within the environmental community.  NRDC, Defenders of Wildlife, the National Wildlife Federation and others all support delisting.

Now, that’s not to say that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to delist Great Lakes wolves can’t be improved.  Among other things, the federal government could move to strengthen state management plans.  While there are many good things about these plans (particularly when you compare them to what we’ve seen out West) they are far from perfect. For example, while the Minnesota wolf management plan is a state law, the Wisconsin and Michigan plans are closer to non-binding agreements.  And, while the Minnesota and Michigan plans allow for possible population growth, Wisconsin’s plan aims to manage the state’s wolf population at half of its current size. 

But what really worries me -- and, frankly, threatens to derail the whole thing -- is what the Fish and Wildlife Service is doing in the rest of the country.  You see, the federal government has not contented itself with figuring out whether wolves in the Great Lakes can be delisted.  Instead, they’ve chosen to wade into a complex and ongoing scientific debate over how wolves in the East (and some wolves in the Great Lakes) should be classified.

There have been a slew of recent studies analyzing the genetic makeup of wolves across the country and in Canada.  When scientists looked at the results they noticed something strange.  Wolves in the eastern part of the country, including about half the wolf samples in the Great Lakes, have a few parts of their DNA which “look like” coyote DNA, not wolf DNA.  But these “haplotypes” don’t actually occur in modern coyotes.  That is, while they look like the kind of DNA one usually sees in coyotes, you can’t find them in coyotes.  So what are these wolves with coyote-ish DNA?  There are two main theories:

  • The first theory, embraced by the Fish and Wildlife Service, is that they are a whole new species of “eastern wolf”--Canis lycaon*--and that the gray wolf (Canis lupus), which we all used to think ranged from coast to coast, actually never occurred much farther east than the Great Lakes.  There are some real problems with this theory, however.  If you really want to geek out about this stuff (or need some help falling asleep), check out our comment letter here.
  • The second theory is that a long time ago, some gray wolves bred with coyotes (we know that coyotes and wolves will do this upon occasion) and that the coyote DNA we now see in so-called “eastern wolves” at some point changed or simply disappeared from today’s coyote population (and is thus now only present in certain wolves).

The problem is that in their rule dealing with Great Lakes wolves, the Fish and Wildlife Service has also proposed recognizing the new eastern wolf as a full species, but it has not yet decided whether this “new” species merits protections under the Endangered Species Act. 

This means two things: (1) wolves in 29 states, including New York and all of New England, will lose their protections, and (2) the federal government has now said there are two different species of wolves living the Great Lakes (gray wolves and eastern wolves), which intermingle, can’t be told apart from each other except through genetic tests, and one may be an endangered species.

We think this position is scientifically unjustified.  As for the States, they freaked.  New York said that aspects of the Service’s rule were “erroneous and scientifically insupportable” and that the recognition of a new species of eastern wolf “is unprecedented and not supported by a consensus of the scientific community.”  Wisconsin said that they “strongly disagree” with the “conclusion that a newly discovered species, the eastern wolf (Canis lycanon) exists in the [western Great Lakes] as a separate species or population” and that the Service’s conclusion was “contrary to over 30 years of listing, protection and management.”  Minnesota declared that the Service had “prematurely accepted only one of several competing alternatives to the taxonomic classification of wolves.”

In response, the Service should take a deep breath and a step back.  There is no reason that the agency has to weigh in on the existence of “eastern wolves” right now, especially when the science is so unsettled.  It should analyze the Great Lakes wolf population for what it is: a single, interbreeding, connected population of gray wolves. 

Instead, sadly, the agency is poised to create unnecessary confusion and conflict. 

Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.


*Someone must have had a sense of humor, as “Lycaon” was the King of Arcadia who, in Greek Mythology, was transformed into a wolf as a punishment by Zeus.

Related Issues

Related Blogs