Congress: Michigan, Great Lakes wolves could lose federal protection

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U.S. House legislation would order Fish and Wildlife Service to strip Michigan, Great Lakes wolves of protection and

WASHINGTON — Legislation under committee consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives today would strip gray wolves in the western Great Lakes states of protections they enjoy under the Endangered Species Act. 

Less than two months after an appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled that the protection afforded wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin should continue unless there is a further study, the House Federal Lands Subcommittee today took up legislation that would reverse that decision.

 A second bill —- co-sponsored by several Republican Michigan members of Congress — would do much the same and is expected to get a vote in the subcommittee, as well, perhaps as early as this week. 

The section regarding gray wolves’ protection considered by the Federal Lands Subcommittee is part of a larger bill that would take steps to ensure that public lands remain largely open to hunting and fishing.

During today’s hearing, Democrats voiced deep concerns about other portions of the legislation, including measures that would make it easier for people to buy firearm silencers and put more of a legal and financial burden on law enforcement when stopping a vehicle suspected of potentially transporting a firearm across state lines.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been attempting for years to de-list the 600 or so gray wolves in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and larger populations from Minnesota and Wisconsin from protection under the Endangered Species Act but has been turned back each time.

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In the most recent ruling, the court said Fish and Wildlife could not go through with such a de-listing without studying what such a move would mean to the population across the rest of the U.S. Proponents of hunting wolves argue that the numbers are significantly recovered to allow for de-listing and that wolves increasingly threaten livestock, reduce deer populations and even threaten humans.

In August, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, called such anecdotal evidence "fabricated" and "exaggerated," noting that in cases where wolves are found to kill livestock, farmers can get permission to kill wolves.

"Congress should not subvert the rulings of two federal courts affirming the conclusion that de-listing of wolves in the Great Lakes region is premature," Pacelle said today, adding that they help reduce auto collisions with deer by reducing the population. "The wolf population in the state is small and not increasing, and Michigan voters have rejected trophy hunting of the animals by voting down two statewide ballot measures to allow it."

Michigan rejected wolf hunting in state referendums in 2014.

The legislation — like that co-sponsored by Republican U.S. Reps. Bill Huizenga of Zeeland, John Moolenaar of Midland and Tim Walberg of Tipton — calls for issuing the order de-listing wolves within 60 days of it being signed into law and prohibits any judicial review of the order.

“Basically, it’s been technicalities in the rules (that have kept wolves listed). There’s no question (they) belong off the endangered species list,” said Anna Seidman, government affairs director for Safari Club International, a hunters rights group. “We need to end this endless court battle and have Congress step in.”

While it's possible the full committee would send both measures to the full House for consideration, it's unlikely both would be scheduled for a vote. The more sweeping legislation could be seen as more of a priority then and could get top consideration. 

But the legislation still faces difficulties: With so much before Congress between now and the end of the year, it could be caught in a logjam and Democratic members of the U.S. House, while outnumbered with Republicans in the majority, will likely try to do all they can to slow it, especially because of the firearm portions of the bill.

If it gets to the Senate, it would have to cross a 60-vote threshold. Republicans hold only a 52-seat majority in the Senate, though some Democrats from western and rural states potentially might be convinced to vote for it with changes.

Contact Todd Spangler: 703-854-8947 or tspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @tsspangler. Staff writer Keith Matheny contributed to this report.

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