By JOHN FLESHER
AP Environmental Writer
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) - Gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region should not yet be removed from the federal endangered species list, a group of scientists and scholars said Tuesday, disagreeing with colleagues who said the population has rebounded sufficiently.
Lifting government protection from wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin could be justified if and when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "uses the best available science that justifies delisting," 29 scientists from the U.S. and several other nations said in an open letter. "Currently it does not."
The scientists said they were responding to 26 colleagues who sent a letter last week to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell saying it was time for wolves to lose their endangered status in the western Great Lakes, where their combined population is estimated at 3,700. When given protection in 1974, about 750 wolves in northeastern Minnesota were the only ones remaining in the lower 48 states after a century of persecution.
The department has tried repeatedly to drop the region's wolves from the list but has been thwarted by federal courts in response to lawsuits from animal protection groups.
U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell ruled in December 2014 that the Midwestern states that would assume responsibility for wolf oversight didn't have suitable plans to safeguard them from humans, disease and habitat loss. The government is appealing Howell's decision, and bills pending in Congress would overturn it.
In their letter to Jewell, whose department includes the Fish and Wildlife Service, the first group of scientists said the agency had done its job by shielding Great Lakes wolves until their population could recover from previous efforts to exterminate them.
"The integrity and effectiveness of the (Endangered Species Act) is undercut if delisting does not happen once science-based recovery has been achieved," they said. "When this happens, it creates disincentives for the states to continue to be active participants in recovery efforts and creates public resentments toward the species" and the law.
Among those who sent the letter were David Mech, a wolf specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Minnesota, and Adrian Wydeven, a retired Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.
In their rebuttal, the second group of scientists said public tolerance of wolves has risen substantially since they were given protection and suggestions that patience is wearing thin are spread by "special interest groups that are vocal, but small in number."
They echoed Howell's concerns about state management plans, particularly their inclusion of hunting and trapping as tools for keeping the predator species' population under control.
"Quite simply, wolves still fit the legal definition of endangerment in the Great Lakes region and nationwide," said the scientists, including John Vucetich and Rolf Peterson of Michigan Technological University, leaders of a longstanding study of wolves at Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior.
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