by John Myers
A flash of gray or black fur. Those piercing eyes. That big, bushy tail. Then, almost always, gone in an instant.
Or maybe it was a distant howl, heard on a canoe trip or in a deer stand that raised the hair on the back of your neck.
Minnesotans who have seen or heard a wild wolf will never forget the heart-pounding awe, laced with a tinge of fear. That our state has more wolves than any other outside Alaska is a point of pride and cause for celebration for many Minnesotans.
Yet not all Minnesotans are happy with wolves. A hunter is scared to climb out of the deer stand when wolves are around. A farmer hears cattle bawling in the night and finds a dead calf in the pasture. A small dog is killed in a rural yard. Some people say the state has too many wolves.
Dr. David Mech discusses wolf management in Minnesota
Listen to a question and answer session about wolves with Dr. David Mech of the U.S. Geological Survey. The wolf researcher answered questions about Minnesota wolves, a hunting season and the DNR's wolf management plan on Jan. 26, 2012 before the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee.
Recovered King of the Forest
While gray wolves once roamed across much of the continental United States, they were shot, trapped, poisoned, and pushed out of nearly every part of the country for 200 years. From Minnesota's statehood until wolves landed on the endangered species list in 1974, no laws prohibited killing wolves. In fact, state bounties were paid on Minnesota's wolves up until 1965.
By 1974 the number of gray wolves in the lower 48 states had dropped to about 600. Nearly all lived in Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota, and a few survived on Michigan's Isle Royale in Lake Superior.
In 1978 a team of top wildlife researchers developed a plan to build northern Minnesota's wolf population back to at least 1,400 animals by the end of the 20th century. If all went well, a few Minnesota wolves would roam into Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula—maybe 100 in each state. If those numbers held for several years, the federal government would consider the gray wolf fully recovered and no longer endangered.
Minnesota's wolves proved far more resilient than the experts imagined. Their population reached the recovery goal of 1,400 by the mid-1980s and kept going up.
Minnesota wolf zones
Now, Minnesotans have another chance to responsibly manage wolves. This past January the federal government completed the long process of lifting wolves off the endangered species list across the western Great Lakes region, after nearly 38 years of protection. The move handed management of the animal back to state and tribal wildlife managers. The Department of Natural Resources plan, ready to go since 2001, aims to balance the needs of wolves and people.
Delisting is a result of the recovery of Canis lupus, the gray or timber wolf, from the brink of extirpation in the lower 48 states. Today an estimated 3,000 wolves range across the northern third of Minnesota. And some Minnesota wolves have moved into Wisconsin, which now has about 800, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which has more than 700.
"Not only did wolves recover in Minnesota and spread out to repopulate other states, but Minnesota also became a focal point for wolf research," says Nancy Gibson, a founder of the nonprofit International Wolf Center near Ely. "We really lead the world in developing a better understanding of wolves, and that's because we've always tolerated wolves."
Will Minnesotans continue to tolerate wolves under state management?
Dan Stark, DNR large carnivore specialist, says Minnesota already has a modern, although brief, track record of managing wolves. Minnesota lawmakers passed a DNR wolf management bill in 2000, and the DNR adopted the Minnesota Wolf Management Plan in 2001.
According to Ed Boggess, director of DNR Fish and Wildlife, that plan serves as a guidebook on how the state will live with wolves. It came into play in 2007 and 2008 and again in 2009 when the federal government briefly removed Minnesota's wolves from federal protection. During 18 months in 2007 and 2008, under the state's wolf management laws, a total of 10 wolves were legally killed near farms where wolves had killed livestock.
"That's hardly any kind of war on wolves," Stark says. "If people want to see the future of wolves in Minnesota, it's probably going to look a lot like today. I don't think you'll see the population change drastically in either direction."
The plan says the state must maintain a population of at least 1,600 wolves. That number is a minimum, Stark notes, not a population ceiling. That's far different from some western states that have set maximum population goals and have called on hunters, trappers, and sharpshooters in airplanes to dramatically reduce wolf numbers.
"That won't happen in Minnesota," Stark says. "The goal of our management plan is to solve problems, to reduce conflicts between wolves and people—not to make big cuts in the wolf population."
Livestock farmers in Minnesota's wolf range have a lot at stake in wolf management. John Chute farms 320 acres about 11 miles north of Aitkin along busy Highway 169. He raises about 70 beef cows each year. Chute has farmed there for 30 years and says he didn't see any wolves on his land until the early 1990s. By the late 1990s, they were common.
"We used to be on the fringe of the wolf range," he says. "Now, we're right in the middle of it."
Chute's cattle are most vulnerable during calving season in March and April. Even when his cattle stay within 200 feet of his house, wolves have come in to kill. In the past 10 years, he's lost a half dozen head confirmed to wolves. Federal trappers came to his farm after each incident, each time killing one or two wolves.
"The problem goes away for a while. It seems like the other wolves figure out what's going on and get out of here," he says. "But, eventually, they come back."
State law gives Chute more options to protect his cattle. Under Minnesota law, livestock and pet owners may legally kill wolves that pose a threat to their animals. And, just as the U.S. Department of Agriculture did under federal management, the state will train and pay certified trappers to kill problem wolves on his farm.
Chute says it's not likely farmers will shoot many wolves; the big canines are simply too wary and too fast. But he said the option could help, along with a hunting season and assistance from state-certified trappers. Under state management, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture will continue to handle reimbursements to livestock owners for verified losses.
"If we can do more than stand out there and yell at them, that will be good. The wolves seem to have lost most of their fear," he says. "If they can have some sort of hunting season and some trapping, I think they will become a little more wise, a little more wild than they are now."
As part of its management plan, the DNR has asked for a limited, lottery-based wolf hunting and trapping season in late November, when wolf pelts are prime. As with deer and other big game, successful hunters and trappers would be required to register their kill, and the harvest would stop when the quota is reached. To become final, the regulated wolf hunt requires the Legislature's approval and a period for public comment, which were still pending as this magazine went to the printer.
DNR officials say the season should help reduce wolf conflicts, add to hunter and trapper recreation opportunities, and provide some revenue for wolf-related programs. Stark predicts that for some people a hunting and trapping season would elevate wolves from a nuisance to a trophy animal, similar to what happened with black bears years ago. The number of bears, and appreciation for bears, has only grown since they've been managed for hunting, he says.
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, agrees. "Hunting and trapping will build up a constituency for wolves. And the [license] money raised could pay for wolf research, better wolf population surveys, wolf management near farms, and even pay for livestock reimbursement,'' he says. "It's time we make wolves pay their own way."
Johnson says that many of his group's members worry that the state has too many wolves killing too many deer in some areas. The DNR plans to conduct annual field surveys of wolf numbers, beginning in December 2012. It will be the first major population estimate since 2007–2008.
According to wolf expert L. David Mech, deer comprise about 95 percent of a Minnesota wolf's diet. Each wolf needs about 18 adult deer per year to survive. With 3,000 wolves, that's a take of about 60,000 (including fawns) of the approximately 500,000 whitetails in Minnesota's wolf range. Mech, who has studied wolves since 1958, says wolves are eating well on a whitetail deer herd that, right along with wolf numbers, has more than doubled since the 1970s.
Mech, senior research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey and adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota, says any debate on the details of hunting and trapping seasons "is totally a social issue. There's no biological reason against having a regulated hunting season." Minnesota would have to "declare war on wolves'' and kill nearly half the population each year to truly reduce their numbers, he says, "and Minnesotans aren't going to tolerate that."
"Wolves' ability to bounce back, with very high pup reproduction, is pretty strong,'' he says. "The kind of hunting and trapping Minnesota is talking about isn't going to be any threat to the greater population. I don't see the population changing much at all."
Mech says he supports both the DNR assessment of the wolf population and what he calls the agency's "conservative'' approach to hunting and trapping. His advice to Minnesota wildlife managers is to continue some sort of targeted trapping program on farms where wolves have attacked livestock. That's worked since 1978 to reduce conflict between wolves and farmers and to slow wolf expansion into farm areas. (The federal government stopped paying for that program this past December.)
"Take care of the livestock depredation. That's where the big conflict is and where everyone agrees that control is needed and where it works best," he says. "And I think if you allow hunting, especially where depredations are high, that acts as a safety valve for broader anger against wolves."
Mech says the biggest threat to wolves in coming years will be the continued encroachment of more people, homes, cabins, and other development in the remaining wild areas of the north country. Wolves don't need pristine wilderness to thrive, he notes, but they need space where they can avoid people, pets, and livestock.
"How much wild land are we going to maintain into the future?'' Mech asks. "That's really what's going to determine where wolves live in Minnesota, how many we have."
Gibson of the International Wolf Center agrees. "It's habitat, habitat, habitat,'' she says. "We need to give them space. It's when they get into contact with people that wolves get killed." She says Minnesota wildlife experts are well prepared to handle the biological aspects of wolf management. What's less clear is how state lawmakers, farmers, hunters, and the public will respond to the newfound management responsibility.
"We know where wolves live, what they eat, how many there are,'' Gibson says. "The social aspects are what are unclear. Hunting may reduce anxiety about wolves in rural areas, but it may be too much for people in the Twin Cities who have put wolves on a pedestal. … We're going into uncharted territory in how Minnesota interacts with wolves."
Chute, the Aitkin County farmer, said he holds no ill will toward wolves—at least not the ones that stay away from his cattle.
"I think some of our guys would just as soon see them all gone. Personally, I think they're a creature we can live with. They have every right to be out there. But they have to be managed like other wildlife, like the deer and the bear," he says. "I think there's a middle number there to be found. The last thing we want is for them to drop so far that they go back on the endangered list."
DNR wolf expert Stark predicts more agreement than acrimony as the state moves forward with its wolf management.
"Minnesotans have a pretty good attitude about wolves, better than some other places," he says. "We've been going along with this recovery for nearly 40 years. We aren't going to stop now."