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Remains found may be those of missing Brainerd man

‘Delisting is long overdue’

Dale Lueck talked wolf management at his ranch near Aitkin in 2010

Ranchers and the like in the Northern Rockies can breathe easier.

Here in the Brainerd lakes area, it’s time to take another deep breath and regroup.

On Wednesday, the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was reinstating its 2009 decision to immediately delist biologically recovered gray wolf populations in the Northern Rocky Mountains. But gray wolves in Minnesota and the Western Great Lakes — despite also being referred to as a biologically recovered population in the USFWS release — were not delisted.

In announcing that it was removing wolves from inclusion under the Endangered Species Act, the USFWS also said it is proposing to delist the wolves in the Western Great Lakes. But after years of wrangling, delisting advocates and wildlife managers fear they are no closer to finally getting a handle on the growing gray wolf population in the state.

“It’s frustrating,” said Gary Drotts, DNR wildlife manager in Brainerd. “We’d like to see that under state control.”

Wolves are currently listed as “threatened” in Minnesota, meaning property owners themselves can’t deal with problem wolves. For example, if a wolf attacks a rancher’s cow or dog, the rancher can’t legally protect the animals — killing a wolf is a felony. But, if delisted, ranchers and property owners could protect their animals/property from wolves. And now, if they encounter a problem wolf, property owners must contact the federal agency, which decides if further action is warranted. If so, a trapper may be sent to deal with a problem wolf. But it’s not a timely process.

And in the meantime, gray wolf numbers continue to grow in Minnesota and the area. The 1992 Eastern Timber Wolf Recovery Plan and Endangered Species Act recovery criteria called for a sustained population of 1,251 to 1,400 wolves in Minnesota and an additional viable population in Wisconsin and Michigan of at least 100 wolves. Today, there are about 3,000 to 3,500 wolves in Minnesota and about 1,000 in Wisconsin and Michigan. According to the Endangered Species Act, once a species has recovered, it must be delisted. But activist groups have fought that, resulting in the current standoff.

“Delisting is long overdue and should be accomplished ASAP,” said Nikki Shoutz, a DNR conservation officer out of Pine River. “Currently, the legislators are saying they’re not hearing from individual constituents, so they’re hearing from the other side. I would encourage people to contact their legislators. The western states have a season under state protection and our population is way more than in those states that have a plan for hunting or trapping. Minnesota definitely needs to do likewise. It’s a huge problem with the predation on calves and cows.”

And while the bulk of Minnesota’s wolf population is in St. Louis County in northeastern Minnesota, there has been a spike in wolf numbers — and issues — in the Brained lakes area in recent years, too.

“I’ve been here since 1974, and in ’74 and through the ’70s, they (wolves) were coming into the northern part of my work area — at that time there were probably just a few scattered individuals and packs,” Drotts said. “Now I would say that within 10 to 15 miles of Brainerd there are five to six packs and that shouldn’t surprise anyone. There are two (wolf packs) just east of Merrifield. We have lots of wolves down here.

“From our side, it’s frustrating as wildlife managers. Our goals are set and (wolf numbers) are two to three times above that goal. We’ve accomplished that objective and more. We take pride in that and they’re saying no (to delisting wolves once they’ve reached those numbers). I don’t know what it’s going to take (to get wolves delisted).”

Dale Lueck is wondering the same thing. Lueck, an Aitkin-area rancher, along with Gerald Tyler, a retired real estate developer from Ely, spearheaded a lawsuit in January 2010 to force the Department of Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency to delist wolves in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — again.

In 2009, the federal government agreed to relist gray wolves in the Great Lakes region — two months after the USFWS delisted the wolves. A report said the agency didn’t allow for the legally required public comment period before taking action. Under that settlement, the USFWS said it would return the wolves to the list before deciding whether to seek to again delist them. That was — and still is — a victory for the activist groups that sued the USFWS after the wolves were delisted.

According to a report that came out at about that same time, the federal government had tried six times in the previous five years to drop wolves from the list, but had been denied by lawsuits from activist groups.

“It’s disappointment and frustration because we continue to waste Minnesota tax dollars,” Lueck said. “If I try to protect my livestock or pet (by killing a problem wolf), I’ve committed a felony. That’s not what I pay my taxes for.”

Now, it’s basically back to the drawing board for Lueck in his lawsuit, he said. His next court hearing is June 10 in Duluth.

“We agreed to a stay of the lawsuit in January because they said they were going to delist the wolves,” Lueck said. “But now they have a document out saying that it will be 2012 if they manage to do it. We’re trying to be good citizens about this.”

According to the USFWS, public hearings for the proposed removal of wolves in the Western Great Lakes will be May 18 in Ashland, Wis., and June 8 in Augusta, Maine. For more information on the hearings, go to www.fws.gov/midwest/wolf/ or call (612) 713-5350.

Written comments may be sent to the Federal eRulemaking Portal at www.regulations.gov (follow the instructions for submitting comments to Docket No. FWS-R3-ES-2011-0029) or via U.S. mail or hand-delivery to Public Comments Processing, Attn: Docket No. FWS-R3-ES-2011-0029, Division of Policy and Directives Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MS 2042-PDM, Arlington, VA 22203. Comments must be received on or before July 5. The USFWS said it will post all comments at www.regulations.gov.

Following the close of the comment period, the USFWS said it will consider all new information and other data and make a final decision on the proposal. In the meantime, gray wolves in the Western Great Lakes area will remain classified as endangered, except in Minnesota, where they will remain threatened.

BRIAN S. PETERSON may be reached at brian.peterson@brainerddispatch.com or 855-5864. To follow him on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/brian_speterson. For his blogs, go to www.brainerddispatch.com.

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