Michigan Shows How to Save Endangered Species

Compensating farmers and working with property owners pays big dividends

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources last month initiated the process of taking the gray wolf off its endangered species list, thanks to the robust comeback this mysterious predator has made in the Upper Peninsula. The main lesson of Michigan’s success is that instead of treating land owners as the enemies of wildlife, it is better to offer them incentives for conservation.

The gray wolves, once commonplace in America, were driven to the brink of extinction in the first half of the 20th century, thanks to a federal program that offered a bounty for killing them. By 1973, when the Endangered Species Act was passed and wolves got protected status, 400 of them remained in the country. There were virtually none left in Michigan. Now the Great Lake states alone are home to more than 4,000 gray wolves — with about 500 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Uncle Sam removed them from its endangered species list some years ago, and Michigan is now following suit.

But the wolves’ recovery is one of the Endangered Species Act’s few success stories. Even though the federal government spends the equivalent of $3.5 billion on species protection every year, only 11 of the 1,300 species originally classified as “endangered” or “threatened” have been de-listed — a success rate of less than 1 percent.

A big reason for this is the law’s attitude toward landowners. Instead of enlisting their cooperation, it has tried to strong-arm them into complying through mandates and threats — an unwise strategy given that about 80 percent of all listed or threatened species have habitat on private land.

For instance, the law bars development or any disturbances on land that houses a listed species, effectively depriving ranchers, farmers and others of their means of livelihood. The result is that in states like Montana, ranchers preemptively sterilize habitat that might attract a rare animal — or, as the locals say, “shoot, shovel and shut up” if they find one on their property.

Similarly, the law originally tried to protect wolves by making it a felony — that carried a fine of up to $100,000 and a one-year prison sentence — for anyone to kill one, even farmers whose livestock or pets were under attack. But such a law is impossible to enforce, and landowners often resorted to illegal and uncontrolled killing of wolves without ever being caught.

Unsurprisingly, wolf populations remained stagnant for about 30 years after the law was passed — until wildlife groups started compensating farmers who lost livestock to wolves. Michigan, along with Minnesota and Wisconsin, was among the first to shift gears with Western states following suit. By 2004, wolf populations in the three Great Lake states exceeded the recovery goals set when the species was listed as endangered in 1972.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and some wildlife groups have drawn the logical lesson from the wolf’s resurgence, making local and landowner cooperation an essential part of their recovery efforts. The Defenders of Wildlife, in particular, raises private funds expressly for compensation purposes — and helps to pay for other ways to protect livestock.

But the lesson from the wolves’ recovery has yet to penetrate at the federal level.

Michigan’s success with gray wolves demonstrates how self-defeating the regulatory approach is. Let’s hope Uncle Sam realizes that before too many more species go the way of the dinosaur.