TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. (AP) — A federal judge on Friday threw out an Obama administration decision to remove gray wolves in the western Great Lakes region from the endangered species list — a decision that will ban further wolf hunting and trapping in three states.
The order affects wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, where the combined population is estimated at around 3,700. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service dropped federal protections from those wolves in 2012 and handed over management to the states.
U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell in Washington, D.C., ruled Friday the removal was "arbitrary and capricious" and violated the federal Endangered Species Act.
Unless overturned, her decision will block the states from scheduling additional hunting and trapping seasons for the predators. All three have had at least one hunting season since protections were lifted, while Minnesota and Wisconsin also have allowed trapping. More than 1,500 Great Lakes wolves have been killed, said Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, one of several groups whose lawsuit prompted Howell's ruling.
"We are pleased that the court has recognized that the basis for the delisting decision was flawed, and would stop wolf recovery in its tracks," Lovvorn said.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Gavin Shire said the agency was disappointed and would confer with the U.S. Department of Justice and the states about whether to appeal.
"The science clearly shows that wolves are recovered in the Great Lakes region, and we believe the Great Lakes states have clearly demonstrated their ability to effectively manage their wolf populations," Shire said. "This is a significant step backward."
State officials acknowledged being caught by surprise and said they would study the judge's 111-page opinion before deciding what to do next.
"It's an unusual turn of events," said Tom Landwehr, Minnesota's natural resources commissioner.
The ruling is the latest twist in more than a decade of court battles over the gray wolf, which has made a strong recovery after being shot, poisoned and trapped into near-extermination in the lower 48 states in the last century. Only a remnant pocket in northern Minnesota remained when the species was added to the federal endangered list in 1974.
The wolf is now well-established in the western Great Lakes and in the Northern Rockies, where the minimum population is estimated at around 1,700.
Animal protection advocates repeatedly have sued over federal efforts to drop federal protections in both regions, arguing that the wolf's situation remains precarious. Meanwhile, ranchers and farmers complain of heavy financial losses from wolf attacks on livestock.
A judge in September restored endangered status to wolves in Wyoming, although those in Montana and Idaho remain off the list. The Fish and Wildlife Service is nearing a final decision on whether to lift protections across the remainder of the lower 48 states, except for a fledgling population of Mexican gray wolves in the desert Southwest.
In her opinion, Howell acknowledged the issue inspires passions on all sides but said the administration's "practical policy reasons" for its action in the Great Lakes region don't trump the requirements of the federal law, which "offers the broadest possible protections for endangered species by design."
"This law reflects the commitment by the United States to act as a responsible steward of the Earth's wildlife, even when such stewardship is inconvenient or difficult for the localities where an endangered or threatened species resides," Howell wrote.
The ruling came too late to halt this fall's hunting and trapping seasons. They have concluded in Minnesota, where 272 wolves were killed, and Wisconsin, where the total was 154.
Michigan's only hunt was in 2013, when 22 wolves were taken. During the November election, voters rejected two pro-hunting laws approved by the Legislature. But a third remains on the books, and regulators had been expected to consider scheduling another hunt next year.
Minnesota and Wisconsin officials warned residents that with wolves classified as endangered once again, it's no longer legal to shoot those preying on livestock or pets. Wolves can be killed only if threatening human life, said Chris Niskanen of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.