Wildlife advocacy group sues Wisconsin DNR over 2023 wolf management plan

A wildlife protection group has filed a lawsuit against the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources alleging the agency infringed on constitutional due process and equal protections as well as violated various statutes as it formulated an update to the state's gray wolf management plan.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Dane County Circuit Court by the Great Lakes Wildlife Alliance; it names the DNR and the Natural Resources Board, the seven-member citizen body that oversees the department.

The NRB unanimously approved the wolf plan and associated hunting and trapping rules at its Oct. 25 meeting.

In its filing, the GLWA claims the DNR ignored science, violated Wisconsin's Open Meeting Law and Administrative Procedure Act and favored anti-wolf groups as it worked on revisions included in the 2023 wolf plan.

Further, the group alleges a pattern and practice of "viewpoint discrimination that violated Petitioner’s rights under the Wisconsin Constitution, and failing to comply with their public trustee obligations to ensure the conservation of Wisconsin’s wildlife for future generations."

The suit asks the court to declare the DNR's wolf plan invalid and block any wolf hunting and trapping season unless it complies with the state's meeting and procedure act laws.

It also seeks a declaration that the agency violated the rights of the GLWA and its members "by selectively rejecting public comments from disfavored parties."

In addition to shelving the wolf plan, the lawsuit aims to set aside updated wolf hunting and trapping rules approved last month.

The DNR declined to comment on the pending litigation.

The wolf in Wisconsin is currently under protections of the federal Endangered Species Act and no wolf hunting or trapping is allowed.

However, the GLWA would like more protections for wolves as well as to hold the DNR and NRB accountable for what it claims are improper actions.

The group points to communications obtained through the state's open records law that allegedly show the DNR allowed improper influence by pro-hunting and trapping groups as it worked on details of the plan.

Great Lakes Wildlife Alliance is a non-profit corporation based in Madison. According to the legal filing, the group has 15,860 members in Wisconsin "who want to move wildlife management toward an ethical, science-based, democratic vision of wildlife conservation that respects diversity and the intrinsic value of life."

The group was among the litigants in a Dane County Circuit Court case that successfully blocked a planned fall 2021 Wisconsin wolf hunting and trapping season.

In the current case, the GLWA claims the DNR revised its wolf plan after staff and members of the Natural Resources Board attended private meetings hosted by wolf hunting advocates.

"The wolf plan happens to be one of many policy decisions where these fundamental principles are so blatantly compromised, so it is our duty to take action, holding agencies accountable for their failures and addressing any potential corruption that undermines these principles,” said Melissa Smith of GLWA. "We want to make sure the rules work for the greater public interests and not just some groups."

In its filing, the GLWA also expressed concern over what it called the DNR's preference for "top-down politicized and questionable science that prioritizes lethal control and recreational hunting" over non-lethal tactics.

George Meyer, a lawyer and former DNR Secretary, said the legal merits of the lawsuit are "dubious."

"It's the responsibility of the DNR and NRB to get public input," Meyer said. "And if any group feels like its views aren't fully represented in a plan or rule, well, welcome to the club. It happens all the time and it will be very difficult to prove the DNR didn't take good science into account in this case."

Meyer pointed out groups such as the Wisconsin Farm Bureau wanted a plan with a wolf population goal of 350 animals. The DNR and NRB approved a plan without a numeric goal but would likely keep the population between 800 and 1,200 wolves. The DNR estimated Wisconsin had 1,007 wolves in late winter.

GLWA is represented by the attorneys at Wisconsin-based lawfirm Laffey, Leitner & Goode, LLC as well as Greenfire Law, PC, a public interest environmental law firm located in Berkeley, California.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wildlife advocacy group sues Wisconsin DNR 2023 wolf management plan