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House passes bill to allow wolf hunting, trapping

Gray wolves like this one would be open to state hunting and trapping seasons and removed from federal Endangered Species Act protections under a bill passed by the U.S. House. It's unclear if the bill will pass the Senate. National Park Service photo

The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday, Nov. 16, passed a bill that would remove gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act list and open them to state hunting and trapping seasons.

In the latest act of the ongoing wolf saga, the lame-duck House voted 196-180, along heavily partisan lines, to approve H.R. 6784 that would take wolves off the endangered list nationwide and block courts from considering violations of federal law for wolves under the Endangered Species Act.

While the bill is seen as good news for farmers, ranchers and some sportsmans' groups that want to see wolf numbers reduced in several states, similar bills have passed the House in recent years but stalled in the Senate, leaving wolves under court-ordered federal protections.

This may have been the last chance for a wolf bill to advance as the incoming House in January, with a newly-elected Democratic majority, isn't likely to be as favorable. It's also unlikely the Senate will take up the bill by year's end.

Wolf supporters say the House bill goes too far, allowing extensive hunting and trapping in places like Minnesota, Wisconsin — where wolves have recovered from near extinction — and preventing the animals from spreading into additional areas they once occupied before European settlement. Wolf supporters say there aren't enough wolves in enough places to consider them safe from extinction.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., showed House members a chart showing that 74 percent of cattle losses are due to health issues, 7.8 percent due to weather and just 0.2 percent due to wolves.

Of a rancher who lost a calf to wolves, DeFazio said, "It's sad that that calf didn't get to grow up and go to the slaughterhouse," and added that the wolf delisting bill is "going nowhere in the Senate."

But supporters of the bill say wolves have recovered in core areas enough to allow some of them to be shot and trapped. They urged the Senate to pass the bill and send it to President Trump.

"The best scientific and commercial data available has supported removing gray wolves from the list of threatened and endangered species," said Kevin Kester, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "It is encouraging to see the House of Representatives take this important step to make the Endangered Species Act work the way it was intended."

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources estimated last year that the state has about 2,856 wolves. The Wisconsin DNR earlier this year said there are as many as 944 wolves in the state, down about 2 percent from the estimated 956 last year, the state's modern-day record. Michigan's Upper Peninsula has more than 500 wolves.

Earlier this week the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit in federal district court in Washington against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for violating the Endangered Species Act by never developing a comprehensive recovery plan for gray wolves nationwide. According to the 2014 federal court ruling, wolves must remain protected until the Fish and Wildlife Service implements a national plan.

But the federal agency in June went the opposite direction, saying it would yet again file a formal plan later this year to remove wolves from federal protections entirely because they have recovered in enough places to ensure their survival as a species — including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has tried multiple times — through the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations — to delist wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, saying the big predators have fully recovered here after brushing with extinction in the 1960s and '70s. The most recent of those delisting efforts, in 2012, allowed state agencies to hold wolf trapping and hunting seasons for three years, until late 2014 when a federal judge ruled that the agency had erred in taking wolves off the endangered list too soon.

That December 2014 ruling was upheld in 2017 by a federal appeals court decision that continues to protect wolves across the region today.