Minn. hunters on brink of seeing first wolf seasonDULUTH, Minn. — Barring a court ruling, a limited number of Minnesotans will be in the woods on Nov. 3 with licenses to kill gray wolves. Minnesota will hold its first formal wolf season concurrent with the state’s firearms deer opener, with a later hunting and trapping season to follow.
By: Sam Cook, The Dickinson Press
DULUTH, Minn. — Barring a court ruling, a limited number of Minnesotans will be in the woods on Nov. 3 with licenses to kill gray wolves. Minnesota will hold its first formal wolf season concurrent with the state’s firearms deer opener, with a later hunting and trapping season to follow.
Passions run deep over the wolf in Minnesota. For many, it is an iconic creature, a symbol of all that is truly wild, a superior animal with a complex pack hierarchy. For those who see wolves in that light, the idea of shooting or trapping them is abhorrent.
Others — including some northern deer hunters — believe Minnesota has too many wolves. Some in this camp believe that wolves are killing too many deer, leaving too few for hunters to take. Others contend that wolves have become too emboldened, preying on livestock and snatching pets from the yards of rural homes.
None of this should come as any surprise. Wolves have been revered and reviled for decades, not only in Minnesota but across the continent.
“It’s been a bit rocky and controversial, but I don’t think anybody expected it wouldn’t be,” said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association based in Grand Rapids.
MDHA lobbied the Legislature to hold the wolf hunt during the firearms deer season.
“Wolves really have a special place in Minnesota. They’re iconic,” said Collette Adkins Giese of Blaine, Minn., a biologist and attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of two groups suing to halt a wolf hunt this fall. “It’s a species that has such a sad tale to tell. They were a species driven almost to extinction by people killing them. I think there’s a certain sensitivity about us going down that path again.”
A species recovered
This fall’s wolf seasons in Minnesota will mark the first time in nearly 40 years that Minnesotans have been able to legally hunt or trap wolves. Their survival in Minnesota was once threatened, and the state’s gray wolves were placed on the federal Endangered Species List in 1974 with full protection. Their recovery has been more robust than almost anyone expected, and now it’s estimated that 3,000 wolves roam the state, most in the northeast. Their range has expanded south and west farther than many experts anticipated.
Wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List on Jan. 27 after two previous attempts at de-listing were delayed by lawsuits. Soon after, the Minnesota Legislature decided that the state would hold a hunting and trapping season that would begin with the firearms deer season. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources had originally proposed a wolf hunting and trapping season starting in late November, after the firearms deer season.
In September, the Center for Biological Diversity and a group called Howling for Wolves brought legal action trying to stop the hunt, and their request for an emergency injunction to halt the season is before the state Supreme Court. Those groups believe the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources acted too quickly and without enough public input in determining the structure of the state’s wolf season.
DNR officials declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation, but in its response to the court case the agency said it followed the appropriate course in setting the season.
In the state’s original wolf management plan, any wolf hunting or trapping season would have been established only after a five-year waiting period once de-listing occurred. But the Legislature last year changed that provision, allowing hunting and trapping to begin without delay.
The state’s wolf management plan calls for a minimum wolf population of 1,600 in the state.
More than 23,000 people, most of them Minnesota residents, applied for the 6,000 licenses available for this fall’s seasons. An early hunting season, concurrent with the firearms deer hunt, will allow hunters to take up to 200 wolves. A later hunting and trapping season, from Nov. 24 to Jan. 31, will allow hunters and trappers to take another 200 wolves, for a total maximum harvest of 400 in all seasons.
Most hunters and trappers think Minnesota’s wolves will be difficult to trap or shoot, and that the overall harvest will be well below the maximum of 400.
“Once they understand they’re being pursued, they get really smart,” said Duluth’s Dan Croke, a longtime trapper who has trapped wolves at livestock depredation sites for the United States Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. “It won’t be that easy in the deep woods. In farm country it’ll probably be easier.”
The MDHA’s Johnson said he believes the total harvest will be relatively low.
“I’ll be surprised and pleased if (the harvest) breaks the 200 mark,” Johnson said.
Johnson was also surprised that the number of license applicants was just 23,477.
“I was thinking we’d have 100,000,” he said.
Johnson said he thinks that many people, while supportive of the hunt, simply aren’t accustomed to hunting predators, and others didn’t want to pay the $30 license fee, plus perhaps another $200 to have a wolf hide tanned.
Wayne Johnson of Palisade drew a wolf license for the early hunt, during the firearms deer season. He plans to hunt wolves while he hunts deer in northeastern Aitkin County. He will focus on deer the first two or three days, then concentrate more on shooting a wolf.
“I think they’re a really cool and neat and impressive animal,” said Johnson, 62. “I enjoy seeing them in the wild. I think they’ll be a challenge to hunt.”
He thinks the state’s estimate of 3,000 wolves is low, and that the DNR’s wolf population study in the coming year will reveal a larger population.
“I certainly don’t want to see them exterminated,” he said. “I think it’s an opportunity, a resource that as hunters we can take advantage of.”
If he shoots a wolf, he’ll likely have its hide tanned and made into a rug, as hunters often do with bears, he said.
“You want to see that animal used,” said Nancy Gibson, a co-founder and board member of the International Wolf Center. “You don’t want to waste it. … They’re not going to eat it. They’re hopefully going to use the pelt.”
The International Wolf Center has not taken a position on Minnesota’s wolf season. And “as a citizen of the state, I’m not going to take a position as long as wolves are treated respectfully,” Gibson said.
Source of controversy
The Center for Biological Diversity and Howling for Wolves have sued the DNR in part because they feel the public didn’t have enough opportunity to comment on a proposed season. Hearings were held in the Legislature, and the DNR offered an online survey aimed primarily at allowing hunters and trappers to help shape the season. Of 7,351 respondents to that online survey, only about 1,500 supported a wolf season, DNR officials said.
“I think if you did a public poll in Minnesota, most people would be against hunting and trapping (wolves),” Gibson said. “I think everyone would have liked to see an opportunity for public comment. The world turns for those who show up at the Capitol.”
From the beginning, leaders of the Legislature’s natural resource committees were determined to start the wolf season with the firearms deer season.
“We supported the DNR’s premise to have no hunting for five years after de-listing,” said Adkins Giese of the Center for Biological Diversity. “That would give them time to do the population surveys called for in the (wolf management) plan, and it also gives us time to see how wolves are responding to all the killing (for depredation) occurring under state management that didn’t occur under federal management. Now landowners across the state can take wolves to protect livestock.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, based in Arizona, is not against hunting, Adkins Giese said.
“But we do take a position on individual cases where we think it’s premature,” she said.
MDHA’s Johnson said he thinks much of the opposition to hunting and trapping wolves is from anti-hunting groups.
“The part I’m most surprised about is how persistent the anti-wolf-hunters have been at refusing to listen to the research and all the science,” he said.
L. David Mech, one of the nation’s leading wolf researchers, has said studies indicate that up to 30 percent of a wolf population can be safely harvested. Thirty percent of Minnesota’s estimated 3,000 wolves would be 900, far above the DNR’s quota of 400.
“There’s no way we’re going to come close to that,” Mech told the News Tribune earlier this year. “Even in the period before wolves were protected and were available all year around legally, people would get maybe 100 to 200 per year.”
So far this year, at least 248 wolves have been taken by state and federal trappers in depredation cases involving livestock. Typically, about 80 farms have verified wolf depredation complaints each year, according to the DNR. Over the past several years, an average of 170 wolves have been captured or killed each year by federal trappers in response to verified livestock depredation.
Gibson said she was somewhat surprised by the lawsuit against the wolf hunt.
“I would really like it if people could concentrate on saving wolf habitat,” she said, “and take a long-term view of a sustainable wolf population. I would call wolf habitat wild lands that have security for denning and hunting. It doesn’t need to be pristine habitat, but an area that has sufficient prey and some security from humans so wolves can do what they need to do.”