Judge Blocks Wisconsin Hunt After Lawsuit by; AWA and the Center for a Humane Economy

If Any Appeals Are Denied, Decision Could Spare Hundreds of Wolves 

There hasn’t been much good news for wolves in 2021 – until now.

On Friday night, October 22nd, a Wisconsin judge issued, according to a description from a state assistant attorney general, a “dramatic decision” that blocks the state’s plan to turn hunters loose on November 6th to start killing wolves.  The state had set a quota of 130 wolves, allowing the hunters to employ packs of hounds, neck snares, and steel-jawed leghold traps to facilitate the destruction of the wolves. Animal Wellness Action, the Center for a Humane Economy, Friends of the Wisconsin Wolf and Wildlife, Project Coyote, and hunter Patrick Clark brought the case forward, and it resulted in the best news for wolves so far in 2021.

Dane County Judge Jacob Frost determined that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) violated the state constitution when it failed to issue any new regulations for wolf hunting, relying on a nearly decade-old 2012 “emergency rule” adopted in haste after a Republican-led legislature all but mandated a hunt, absent federal dictates otherwise. 

Pointing to a breakdown in state administrative procedure, Judge Frost noted the “perverse result of an emergency rule that has lasted about a decade” and that was guiding decision-making in the present. 

“DNR needs to stop it,” Frost said in his oral ruling issued from the bench Friday. “They need to actually comply with the law.” The judge ordered DNR to set the wolf quota at zero, and to issue zero licenses allowing hunters to kill wolves until it engages in formal rulemaking.

In February, the DNR was a bystander as hunters exceeded the agency quota for the highly unusual February hunting season by nearly two-fold, allowing the kill of 223 wolves in 60 hours. Even after February’s humiliating blunder – when hunters intentionally kept killing wolves even after they blew past the quota — DNR actually lengthened the reporting period for the proposed November hunt, allowing hunters even more time to prolong the killing of wolves. The season was structured as something of a free-for-all, loosely regulated by the state, and we were set for a redux in less than two weeks.

The Trump Administration had removed federal protections for gray wolves on the way out the door, with then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt traveling to the Upper Great Lakes region to announce a delisting rule just two days before the November 2020 presidential election as a transparently political move to drive Republican turn-out in rural parts of the states. That measure took full effect in January, and Wisconsin proved the only state in the region to take the bait and unleash trophy hunters to slaughter wolves. Michigan and Minnesota opted not to conduct hunts, perhaps recognizing that doing so could jeopardize the Trump de-listing action that had already been the subject of legal threats from AWA and other animal welfare and environment organizations.  

But Idaho and Montana, where hunting has been allowed since a Congressional rider in 2012 removed federal protections for wolves, also went all-in on the killing. Idaho announced a plan to kill 90 percent of its 1500 or so wolves, and Montana planned a kill to permit as much as 80 percent of its wolf population. Those hunting and trapping seasons have already commenced, with several of the wolves in Yellowstone National Park’s most famous pack gunned down after they stepped outside the confines of the protected area.

The seasons planned by Wisconsin and the two Rocky Mountain states, should they occur, are expected to wipe out half the wolf population in the lower 48 states.

Federal action needed for wolves in danger in Idaho and Montana

While our Wisconsin lawsuit was really the only means of restoring protections for wolves prior to the November 6th hunt, there are no parallel state-based legal actions that can stop the rolling massacre in Idaho and Montana. There, the fate of the wolves is entirely in the hand of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the agency’s first-ever Native American secretary.

Under authority provided just to the secretary under the Endangered Species Act, Secretary Haaland can take immediate action to list any species as endangered or threatened. These “emergency listing” provisions, which stay in effect for 240 days, are made when a species is “at significant immediate risk of survival.” Given the all-out attack on wolf populations in the Northern Rockies, it’s an action the Secretary has a duty to undertake.

Dan Ashe, who was U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director during most of President Obama’s two terms and who actually supported delisting wolves throughout most of the lower 48 states, declared that “the government must immediately reinstate protections” for wolves because of the radical plans of Idaho and Montana, noting that “an epidemic of cruelty toward wolves is erasing progress made to conserve this species.”

The federal courts have a crucial role as well

In August, AWA, the Center for a Humane Economy, the Sault St. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, and a coalition of 14 animal welfare and conservation groups, many centered in the Great Lakes region, filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California arguing that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the “Service”) violated the ESA in eliminating federal protections. There are three separate lawsuits to restore federal protections for wolves in the Great Lakes states and in a good portion of the West, though a favorable ruling in these cases would not restore protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies.

There’s so much at stake here. The survival of the wolves in core areas in the United States. The recovery of wolves that the United States invested millions in over a 40-year period. The wolf reintroduction plan launched in the Clinton years and celebrated throughout the world. The economic and ecological gains that wolves have delivered from Yellowstone to the Boundary Waters to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Wolves pose no danger to people. The occasional killing of farm animals can be effectively managed through non-lethal mitigation measures and selective control, with ranchers made whole through compensation programs. 

A recently released study pointed out that wolves control deer populations and reduce the frequency of deer-auto collisions, saving human lives and reducing the economic costs of these sad and costly collisions.

The trophy killing of wolves bears no resemblance to hunting for food – a purpose for hunting that many people are familiar with. Nobody eats wolves. With only 5,000 or so in the vast reaches of the lower 48 states, there can be no argument that there are too many.

Once we understand those facts, we are left with an inescapable conclusion: the current killing plans are motivated by an irrational blend of hatred, vengeance and fear. In Wisconsin, these hunts were also illegal. These are all motivations and anti-wildlife behaviors that our nation cannot abide or abet. Secretary Haaland must act, and act now.

AWA, the Center, and other plaintiffs are represented in the Wisconsin case by Joseph Goode of Laffey, Leitner & Goode, LLC, Jessica Blome of Greenfire Law, PC, and Claire Loebs Davis of Animal & Earth Advocates.

Wayne Pacelle is a New York Times bestselling author and President of Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy. He has led efforts to pass 1,500 state laws for animals, more than 100 federal laws and amendments, 30 ballot initiatives, and 500 corporate agreements. He is a graduate of Yale University

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