While a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy in Montana put the wolf population in the Rocky Mountains back on protected status in August, producers in the Great Lakes area are waging their own legal battle over the wolf issue.

Dale Lueck, a north-central Minnesota rancher in Aitkin, and Gerald Tyler, a retired real estate developer from Ely, MN, sued on Jan. 15 to force the U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to delist wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. The suit arose from their frustration with the government’s refusal to comply with the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which stipulates that once a species is deemed recovered, it must be delisted.

Lueck says the ESA is clear on delisting requirements and their complaint zeroes in on the fact that the 1992 Eastern Timber Wolf Recovery Plan and ESA recovery criteria for the wolf in the Midwest have been fully met. That plan called for a sustained population of 1,251-1,400 wolves in Minnesota and an additional viable population in Wisconsin and Michigan of at least 100 wolves. Today, about 3,000-3,500 timber wolves exist in Minnesota, he says, with about 1,000 more in Wisconsin and Michigan.

In fact, the wolf was delisted and managed by Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan without incident for 18 months in 2007-2008. But in fall 2008, a federal judge in Washington, DC sided with the Humane Society of U.S. and placed the Midwest wolves back under ESA protection. The winning argument was that wolves had been removed from protection without a legally required comment period. Since that decision, however, action to delist the wolf has stalled.

“In February 2007, USFWS published a final rule delisting the gray wolf in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, saying: ‘we are taking these actions because available data indicate that this distinct population segment no longer meets the definitions of threatened or endangered under the Act… and greatly exceeds the numerical recovery criteria established in its recovery plan,’” Lueck says.

“The wolf is recovered, and we need to move on and give USFWS credit for a job well done. It’s time we step in and delist the wolves. That will allow USFWS to focus on the real environmental problems we face here in the Midwest,” he says.

“The situation is that livestock producers, state officials and citizens have been denied the right to implement state-management plans that would reduce or eliminate damage and death to domestic livestock caused by wolves.”

Tyler adds that wolf sightings are commonplace in his town of 3,700 residents. Wolves have been reported seen behind restaurants, near school buildings, city hall, the hospital and post office. Losses of pets to wolves are common.

“The right of the public to be secure and safe from injury by wolves is no longer assured. People in northeast Minnesota have been harmed by the failure of USFWS to manage and control the wolf population in northeast Minnesota,” he says.

Lueck, a former U.S. naval officer who returned home to farm in northern Minnesota upon his retirement, says the Molloy decision – while disappointing – should not have a bearing on the Midwest proceedings for a couple of reasons:

  •  The two wolf populations (Rocky Mountain and Great Lakes) are distinct populations. Wolves were extirpated from the Rocky Mountain area and reintroduced into Yellowstone Park in 1995 from a wolf population in Alberta, Canada. Meanwhile, the wolf in the Great Lakes area – while it may have dwindled to less than 1,000 wolves in the 1990s – was never extirpated from the area.

  •  While the federal government never delisted wolves in Wyoming, it did delist them in Idaho and Montana where it placed the wolf under state management. Molloy ruled that as a distinct wolf population, the wolf must be listed, or delisted, as a distinct population and protected accordingly. Thus, the three-state region (Montana, Idaho and Wyoming) can’t have separate protections for the same wolf population in each state. Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission intended to file an immediate appeal of Molloy’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court.

Regarding the Minnesota situation, Lueck says their suit applies to the entire wolf population in all three states – Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. Therefore, he believes the Molloy reasoning isn’t applicable.

“Had we focused only on delisting wolves in Minnesota, then I think the defendants or other potential interveners could point to Judge Molloy’s decision as justification for denying our motion for summary judgment and our complaint,” he says.

Lueck and Tyler have waged a lone battle helped by whatever contributions they could muster from individuals and local organizations. But, on Aug. 9, their cause received a boost when U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen granted motions for amicus curiae.

The ruling allows the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Upper Peninsula Sportsmen’s Alliance, the Safari Club International, and the National Rifle Association to join the suit, thus providing additional unique perspectives and information… as well as needed legal muscle and resources.

“The court’s decision to allow these groups amicus status is huge. Gerald [Tyler] and I carry this forward as a citizen’s lawsuit, representing ourselves,” Lueck says. “These groups have experienced attorneys, and this combination will serve as a strong counterbalance to the limitless resources that the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) can muster in defense of the government.”

Lueck says two matters are currently pending before the court. He says DOJ responded to their suit with a motion to dismiss, which they hope will be denied by Judge Ericksen.

“Assuming our lawsuit is allowed to move forward, the second issue is our motion for a judgment that compels the federal government to delist the wolves here in the Midwest. If granted, that motion should get the job done,” he says.

But, Lueck says, no matter how complicated DOJ tries to make the issue, he’s not giving up. “It’s simply not right that the federal government can continue to ignore its duty under the law to delist the wolves here in the Midwest,” he says.