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On Tuesday, Wisconsin began allowing the hunting and killing of wolves that had, until 2011, been protected by the Endangered Species Act. But scientists say the change is premature and could lead to the devastation of the gray wolf population in the state.
The state's kill-limit was set at 251 wolves by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) — meaning about one-third of Wisconsin's wolf population could be killed legally. The hunt will last until February or until the limit has been reached.
According to the DNR's website, no one had reported killing a wolf as of late Tuesday morning.
The gray wolf was removed from the endangered species list in 2011 following a decades-long federal government campaign to repopulate the animals after they were nearly wiped out in the early 20th century. Legal hunting seasons began in some states the next year, prompting an outcry from scientists who said the wolves' population was not yet at a viable level.
"These are arbitrary and capricious decisions that violate their own policies about what it means to recover a species," Amaroq Weiss, West Coast wolf organizer for the Center for Biological Diversity, told Al Jazeera.
Scientists are worried the wolf population in the state is still too fragile to survive hunts, and warn the wolves' disappearance will have significant impacts all the way down the food chain.
The gray wolf, which once flourished across the entire Northern Hemisphere, evolved over millions of years to play a crucial role in regulating its ecosystem.
Wolves tend to eat older, injured or less healthy animals, according to Weiss, which makes the wolves' species of prey healthier. Also, when prey like deer and elk are hunted by wolves, it keeps them on the move and prevents overgrazing.
Plants and their roots, in turn, provide stability to riverbeds so they don't erode, and the flora also provides roosting places for migrating birds. Vegetation supplies beavers with materials for dams, which then create the deep pools that young fish need to survive.
"It's a beautiful, complex tapestry ... that shows the level of interaction that must happen between apex predators and their environment for the full health of the system," Weiss said.
"Yellowstone is a good example because of its tremendous photographic record dating from the 1800s, when wolves were still in the park, until today. Since wolves were removed in 1926, in the photos you see elk just standing around because there are no predators. And you see the elk's effect on vegetation by overgrazing because they are able to stay in the same area instead of constantly moving."
Those who say the wolf population needs to be kept at a lower level say the hunt is a way to manage wolves that ravage farmer's livestock.
In Wisconsin, the goal is to eventually reduce the wolf population to 350, but experts say that number may be too low for the species to remain viable.
"Scientists used to talk about recovering species to the minimum viable levels; then they began to understand the complex ecological relationships and said instead we need the populations back at the level where they are functioning in the role they evolved to fill," Weiss said.
To maintain ecological stability, most scientists say 5,000 to 7,000 wolves are necessary in the Great Lakes region alone. But ranchers and hunters — and the political officials they support — disagree.
Wolves 'thrown under the bus'
The decisions that led to the gray wolf being removed from the endangered species list were not scientific, but political, Weiss said. Many who oppose wolf repopulation do so simply because the campaign was led by the federal government, she said.
Wolves were first taken off of the endangered species list in the Northern Rockies region in April 2011.
The delisting of wolves originally was attached as a rider to a Department of Defense authorization bill by Sen. John Tester, D-Mont. This change made it possible for each state to delineate its own restrictions on wolf hunting.
"It's unprecedented that Congress would do this, and that the decision could not be challenged in court," Weiss said. "(President Barack) Obama threw the Endangered Species Act under the bus."
The Western Great Lakes region was delisted less than a year later.
"It was a very outrageous situation in which the Obama administration needed to retain enough Democratic seats in the Senate to get his bills through. Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, cut a deal to introduce the rider, which enabled him to keep his seat," Weiss said.
She said powerful groups like Safari Club International, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (after David Allen, former president of NASCAR, took over), and even the Koch Brothers' Americans for Prosperity have worked to delist the wolves.
In June 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) delisted the gray wolf as an endangered species nationwide.
The USFWS was originally founded in 1914 as the U.S. Biological Survey, a federally funded program with the goal of eradicating the wolves of Yellowstone Park. After an effort that included hunting, trapping and poisoning, authorities shot the last two wolves in the park in 1926.
A USFWS news release from the time of the delisting said there were at least 6,100 gray wolves in the contiguous U.S. Based on that number, the service decided the gray wolf should be revised because some populations had recovered enough to no longer be listed as "endangered."
It suggested relisting endangered groups separately as endangered subspecies, such as the Mexican gray wolf, or as distinct population segments.
The USFWS will make its final decision on relisting the wolves in 2014. It is currently seeking comments from the public. More than 20,000 comments have already been submitted to regulations.gov.
As with the environmental scientists, Native American tribes were not consulted before the measures were instituted. Tribes have requested that no wolf hunts take place. No hunters are allowed to kill wolves on tribal lands.
Wolves feature prominently in the origin stories and legends of the Chippewa, in particular, and the animals are associated with courage, strength and loyalty. Chippewa bands living in Wisconsin were given a certain amount of "slots" of the total wolves allowed to be killed — but did not kill one last year. This year, their quota was reduced.
Prior to the recent delistings. the government's gray wolf recovery plan was considered a success in limited regions.
In the Great Lakes region, the wolf population grew from a few hundred in the 1970s to around 5,000, and the animals expanded their range from Minnesota to Wisconsin and Michigan. In the Northern Rockies, natural migration from Canada along with reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park allowed populations to reach around 1,700 across Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, and northern Utah.
Scientists say wolves need connected populations for genetic sustainability and maximum benefits to ecosystems. Today, wolves inhabit less than 5 percent of their historic range.