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Michigan’s Gray Wolves

Michigan’s Gray Wolves

By Jackson Powers*

Gray wolves hadn’t been seen anywhere in Michigan (outside of Isle Royale) for decades when the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted in 1974.[i]Today, there are over 600 grey wolves in Michigan (excluding Isle Royale.)[ii]Still, Michigan’s gray wolves are classified as “endangered” under the ESA.[iii]The legal and political battle over the gray wolf’s protected status concentrates complicated questions underlying the ESA: Namely, at what point is a particular segment of a recovering species no longer “endangered,” if at all? Past case law shows that questions of efficiency and practical politics around the ESA will usually be subject to strong ecological arguments that militate in favor of protection.

As wolves started migrating into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan from Wisconsin in the late 1980’s, Michigan’s state government formulated a wolf management plan that set a minimum population goal of 200 wolves as a proper threshold, roughly a third of the current population.[iv]   Both Federal and State authorities have argued on a bi-partisan basis for over a decade that the species is no longer dependent on the strict legal protections of the ESA and should be delisted.[v]But the government’s ambitions have consistently run aground in the courts. The Interior Department has tried to delist the species three times and each time it has been blocked by litigation from environmental groups.[vi]

The ESA defines an endangered species as “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”[vii] To list a species as “endangered” or “threatened” under the ESA, a committee must find that the species’ survival is sufficiently at risk through five key factors that assess the health of a species.[viii]These same factors are used to evaluate whether a species is still at risk or ready to be delisted[ix]. Once this has been established, states need to prove that they have adequate plans to protect the species above a certain level in order for the protections to devolve from the federal government to the states.[x]In 2008, a federal court struck down a grey wolf delisting in Wyoming because the state’s management plan was inadequate.[xi]

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Interior Department, which oversees the implementation of the ESA, divided the country’s gray wolves into separate groups by geographic area in an effort to cut off the healthiest populations from legal protections. Wolves in Michigan are a part of the Western Great Lakes Distinct Population Segment (DPS), comprising wolves mostly in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, where repopulation efforts have been especially successful.[xii]The actual text of the statute does not define “distinct population segment.[xiii]” By dividing the healthiest sub-group of the gray wolf population from its western cousins and subsequently trying to delist them, FWS sought an effective end-run around the ESA’s specifications for delisting a species. However, courts have repeatedly blocked partial delisting efforts due to the arbitrary nature of dividing a wide-ranging, interdependent, and highly mobile species into specific geographic areas.

This presents a key problem for advocates of delisting: under what grounds can FWS deem a certain species divisible? Also, if delisted, wolves in the Western Great Lakes would become subject to hunting (“human-caused mortality”) in their habitats, potentially reproducing the conditions that led to their prior extinction from the area. The political impetus to delist the gray wolf has grown substantially in recent years as the species’ numbers and range have gradually increased.[xiv]But these efforts may not be consistent with the ESA’s essential scientific and ecological mission to protect endangered species no matter the cost, and thus hard to uphold against third party litigation, even in cases of seemingly healthy populations like Michigan’s gray wolves.

The law requires both a healthy population and legitimate state plans to maintain the population in order to delist any species.[xv]The two prongs of the test suggest a state-by-state approach, but this is inconsistent with wildlife science. Recent case law suggests that partial delisting of a species is not tenable and the eventual delisting of any species will be difficult.

*Jackson Powers is a Junior Editor on MJEAL. He can be reached at

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors only and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Michigan Journal of Environmental and Administrative Law or the University of Michigan.

[i]Grey Wolf Recovery in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (Dec. 2011),

[ii]Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Wolf Management Plan, 14 (2015).

[iii]50 C.F.R. § 17.11 (2018).

[iv]Michigan DNR, supra, at 16.

[v]2 Wolf Groups to Lose Endangered Status,The New York Times(Jan. 28, 2007)

[vi]Humane Society of the U.S. v. Zinke, 865 F.3d 585 (D.C. Cir. 2016)

[vii]16 U.S.C.A. § 1532 (2012).

[viii]16 U.S.C.A. § 1533 (2012).

[ix]Delisting a Species, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service(Apr. 2011),

[x]16 U.S.C.A. § 1532 (2012).

[xi]Nate Blakeslee, American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West119 (2017).

[xii]Humane Society, 865 F.3d at 585.


[xiv]Lisa Friedman, Kendra Pierre-Louis, and Livia Albeck-Ripka, Law That Saved the Bald Eagle Could Be Vastly Reworked, The New York Times(July 19, 2018)

[xv]16 U.S.C.A. § 1532 (2012).

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