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Are gray wolves actually endangered? That's up for debate despite recent ruling

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Last week, a federal judge ruled that gray wolves should be put back on the endangered species list in Minnesota (as well as Wisconsin and Michigan).

One immediate effect: Hunting wolves in those Great Lakes states became illegal.

But days later, a number of groups are disputing the decision, saying the claim that the population of gray wolves is endangered is wrong, and that the animal's numbers are actually healthy.

There are a number of steps that were taken to get to this point. So here's an explanation about why the ruling was made in the first place, and what exactly people are now contesting.

From endangered, to not endangered

Friday's ruling can be traced all the way back to 2012, when the federal government removed the gray wolf from the endangered list in those states, leaving management of the animals' numbers up to each state.

Why did they do it? Because population numbers were deemed healthy.

And here's where the issue lies: How do we define healthy compared to endangered?

'Legally' endangered

Some groups said the decision to remove the wolves from the endangered list didn't result in a healthy population.

The animal's numbers now are lower than they were when removed from the list – partly because of the then-legal wolf hunt – and so the group filed a lawsuit.

It was that lawsuit the judge made a ruling on last week.

A one-sentence background: The primary goal of the Endangered Species Act is to make a species' population healthy and vital enough so they can be taken off the endangered species list, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) notes.

The judge said that removing the wolves from the endangered species list in the Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin violated the Endangered Species Act because although there are healthy populations, the government can't declare it recovered if it still occupies only part of its original range, MinnPost notes.

'Biologically' healthy

While part of the judge's ruling was based on population falling in the Great Lakes states, other groups are now coming forward saying it's not a good measure of whether the gray wolf is endangered.

In a conference call organized by the International Wolf Center in Ely, experts said that trapping and hunting in the Great Lakes states didn't threaten the species' survival, noting wolf populations in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are healthy and biologically recovered, the Duluth News Tribune reports.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has 60 days from the judge's decision to appeal it, the Duluth News Tribune notes – a move other groups support.

Friday's ruling made killing wolves in those three states illegal, unless human life is threatened, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says.

MPR News says ranchers in Minnesota are concerned the wolves could be a threat to their livestock.

The law doesn't allow farmers to shoot a wolf, but they can ask state or federal authorities to kill any wolves threatening their animals.

So, what effect will this ruling have?

The Endangered Species Act is supposed to help animal populations build toward numbers they were once at, and spread to their original habitats. Proponents of the judge's recent ruling say that will be one of the benefits.

But there are doubters, due to space constraints, proper ecosystems, and some states still allowing wolves to be killed.

The gray wolf was widespread across most of North America, but hunting eliminated the wolves from most of its range, the National Wildlife Federation says. Conservation efforts have helped the wolves return to some of its former habitat, but not everywhere.

David Mech of the U.S. Geological Survey in Minnesota and vice chair of the International Wolf Center told The Associated Press that wolves may migrate from Minnesota to repopulate the Dakotas, but not other states because "people just won't let them."

He said he supports the animal being removed from the endangered species list, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

Dick Thiel, a retired wolf biologist formerly with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, told The AP that the wolf population in Wisconsin will likely grow at least a bit – but that's not likely in Michigan's Upper Peninsula because there isn't room for many more wolves there.

However, the judge's decision in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin could spur similar decisions in nearby states.

That could lead to wolves roaming into new areas on their own and also could promote planned reintroduction efforts, Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, said Monday, Duluth News Tribune reports,

“Wolves are absent from 85 percent of their range ... And of that 85 percent there are areas that gray wolves could occupy in a healthy way,” Phillips said, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

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