National interests converge on central Minnesota in US’s only gray wolf delisting hearing
BRAINERD, Minn. — “I’m sorry we’ve got you lined up with numbers like the state penitentiary,” drawled Lesley Travers, the hearing’s third-party moderator. “But, it’s the only way we can ensure everyone gets their chance to speak and be heard.”
That, Travers noted Tuesday, June 25, was the only reasonable way to conduct business when there’s one and a half hours of allotted speaking time and 81 speakers registered. Brainerd played host to the only public hearing in the nation devoted to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal to delist the gray wolf from endangered species protections.
Representatives of the service characterized the decision as a matter of scientific analysis — populations of gray wolves in the lower 48 have rebounded since initial placement on the endangered species list in 1978, establishing a more robust presence in the northern portions of Minnesota and Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, as well as the northern Rockies in the west, to the tune of more than 6,000 animals. These numbers exceed combined goals for both the Rockies and western Great Lakes populations.
The delistment does not include vulnerable red wolf populations or Mexican gray wolf populations in North Carolina and the southwestern United States, respectively. Delistment would strip gray wolves of most federal protections and leave management of the species’ populations to state agencies. This would likely entail a renewal of wolf hunting seasons after decades of bans to that effect with some exceptions, though the species would be monitored for adverse population decreases for another five years as a provision of the Endangered Species Act.
Shades of gray
If Tuesday’s hearing indicated anything at face value, it’s that the situation and long-term fate of gray wolf populations — and those who come into contact with them — poses no easy answers.
Proponents for delistment largely described the proposal as a response to surging wolf numbers well beyond projections in the ‘70s and ‘80s. While these projections didn’t materialize, the real threat of encroaching gray wolf populations has led to devastating economic repercussions for communities across the United States, particularly in northern portions of the lower 48 bordering Canada. This looks only to grow more dire as time goes on and wolf populations migrate further and further south.
A former teacher of Tracy, Minn., and liaison for hunting political advocacy group Big Game Forever, John Coulter said expanding wolf populations are wreaking havoc on cattle ranches, homesteads and gaming preserves throughout the continental United States.
“Consider the economic impact of wolves on people in western United States, northern Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Coulter said. “It’s devastating to portions of the western United States and it’s detrimental to hunting. I’m concerned. You’re playing with people’s lives here. We’re not here to wipe the wolf out, that’s impossible. We’re here talking about balance.”
Don Paey, representing a consortium of sports interests from Salt Lake City, Utah, said the federal government should honor its agreement to delist wolves once they reached their population thresholds.
On the other hand, critics lambasted the delistment proposal as the result of bad science and veiled ulterior motives — for example, mining interests or big game hunting of wolves — dressed up with moral arguments that, while more popular, don’t reflect the big picture of human-gray wolf relations. Despite claims to the contrary, they argued, delistment could lead to wolf population regressions and years of conservation lost to selfish private interests.
Dan Iverson, a lifelong Minnestoan and self-described avid deer hunter and fisherman, criticized what he deemed a failure of many landowners and hunters to coexist with wolves. Instead, he said, people often blame wolves for their own inability to effectively hunt, fish, farm and run businesses in the environments these activities depend on.
“They’re talking about 4,500 wolves across millions upon millions of acres and calling that ‘overpopulation,’” Iverson said. “They’re not overpopulated. I think the federal agencies are misguided in their approach … I don’t think these populations are unreasonable. Go to Wisconsin for deer. There are droves and droves of them. Wisconsin needs more wolves, not less.”
Patricia Pesko, of Rice Lake, Wis., said federal authorities are mischaracterizing the status of vulnerable gray wolf populations with standards set in place decades ago, based on already reduced habitats that pale in comparison to the species’ historical domain.
“Today, there are about 6,000 wolves in less than 20% of their range, with extremely low numbers in Colorado and Utah,” Pesko said. “Without ESA protections, wolves will be at the states’ mercy, which have repeatedly demonstrated they will intigate aggressive hunting and trapping quotas under the guise of protecting livestock. We should strive to coexist.”
Rally at Gregory Park
Sponsored by the Center of Biological Diversity, roughly 24 people from across the state rallied in Gregory Park in north Brainerd Tuesday afternoon to protest the delistment of the gray wolf.
Often referring to the gray wolf in the Ojibwe language as ma'iingan, many protesters — members of the Ojibwe community themselves — spoke of the apex predator as a “brother,” a “sentient creature,” and as a “member of the family.”
It speaks to deeply personal and spiritual connection between the gray wolf and Ojibwe communities for centuries, McGregor resident Sandra Skinaway said, as well as parallel histories of trauma, lost homelands, massacred families and downtrodden communities, as well as a hope for rebirth that wolves and Native Americans share.
“We try to help people understand that the wolf is family to us,” Skinaway said in the blustery shadows of the Gregory Park fountain. “They’re still very vulnerable. The Creator warned us that what happens to one, happens to the other. And it has.”
Rebecca Porchaska, of Eden Prairie, said the argument is skewed in terms of proportions — namely, while gray wolves once numbered more than 2 million, a population of 6,000 is labeled as fully recovered, while damage to livestock and pets are used as ploys to distract from private hunting, oil and mining interests in the United States.
“There has to be a justifiable reason for this,” Porchaska said. “There’s a lot of misinformation around why there should be an open season on wolves. They’re just not valid.”
Porchaska noted the United States Department of Natural Resources indicated that in 2015, of 8.7 million head of cattle and sheep in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan combined, 3,879 were killed by gray wolves.
“I’m not saying it doesn’t happen,” Porchaska said. “It’s just that when we show up to these public hearing it’s made out to be that wolves are a terrifying threat to livestock, but when you qualify the problem. That’s just not the case.”