There is an expression sometimes used to describe things that can be especially dangerous for us to touch or come in contact with. Its origin lies in electrified trains like those that run on the subways of New York City. Outside the two rails on which a subway car runs is a third rail that carries the electricity that powers it. That third rail is high voltage, and if you happen to touch it, it might very well be the last thing you do this side of the great beyond.
The expression is used in American politics to identify an issue that can be dangerous for a politician to touch; let alone propose change. Social Security is sometimes called "the third rail of American politics." It's seen by many as a God-given right and-should a politician dare to suggest we change it-he or she should expect a firestorm of protest and opposition. To come down on the wrong side of the issue might even prove fatal to a political career.
If there is a third rail in American wildlife management, one of the best candidates would be the gray wolf, which until recent times has been called the eastern timber wolf. To put a finer point on it, the current issue is whether to continue the gray wolf's present status as an endangered species with almost complete protection, or allow states to manage it; including by means of limited hunting or trapping.
What makes this timely is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposing in March to remove the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List, allowing states in the Great Lakes region to set population goals and use hunting or trapping to maintain wolf populations within certain population targets. On the other side of the third rail are those who either don't believe the wolf is abundant enough to kill any except a rogue that gets into the habit of killing livestock, or who see the wolf as a symbol of wilderness too sacred to be managed by harvest.
In the 1950's the statewide wolf population was estimated to be as low as 500, and there was actually a bounty-people were paid a reward for shooting or trapping them-until 1965. Even after the bounty ended, wolves could be shot or trapped without limit or permit until they were placed on the Endangered Species List. Wolves were considered a "varmint," and like other predators-coyotes and foxes, for example-were not thought to deserve the respect and protection given to wild game species.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimates gray wolf numbers at roughly 2,600 within our state's borders. This is roughly 1,000 higher than the 1,600 the DNR set as a benchmark for a stable statewide population when wolves were put on the Endangered Species List in 1974. The federal recovery goal range was 1,250 to 1.400 wolves. While 1,600 may not seem like a lot, the gray wolf is a top-of-the-food-chain predator and their abundance is understandably less than prey species; whitetail deer, for example.
In recognition of this rebound in the gray wolf's population, in 2011 gray wolves in the Great Lakes region were removed from the Endangered Species List. Minnesota held limited open seasons on them for three years from 2012 to 2014 before a federal judge ruled that the gray wolf should be returned to the Endangered Species List. Harvest ranged between roughly 200 and 400 wolves in those years.
In March of this year the FWS issued a proposal to again remove wolves from the Endangered Species List, and gave the public 60 days to comment on the idea, or request a public hearing. The Service this past week announced that it is extending the period for public comment by an additional 60 days, to July 15. There will also be an informational open house followed by a public hearing on the evening of June 15 in Bemidji, and June 25 in Brainerd.
If one were looking for a can't-miss bet, it would be that these public hearings in the coming days will be as heated, emotional and perhaps uncompromising as just about any resource management issue you can name. Though the gray wolf was once considered a lowly varmint in Minnesota, with Endangered Species status-and the rise in our appreciation for wilderness-the wolf began to be viewed as a symbol or icon representative of truly wild places. It's probably fair to say that some might as readily accept the shooting of a bald eagle-our national bird-as the shooting or trapping of a gray wolf. Emotion has become as influential as biology.
Evidence of this was seen in the last days of the Minnesota Legislature's recent session, when the DFL-controlled House of Representatives voted by a one-vote margin to ban wolf hunting in the state, regardless of whether the FWS officially removes the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List. The GOP-controlled Minnesota Senate did not support the ban, and thus it died for this session. But the Governor, a Democrat, supported the ban and as the state's top elected official he has significant influence on such agencies as the DNR, which would be in the position to set a season-or not-if the wolf is delisted.
It is not imperative that there be a hunting or trapping season just because a large mammal like the wolf is no longer endangered, and its numbers exceed a recovery goal. But when it's a highly effective predator, one that consumes whitetail deer that hunters also covet-sometimes even domestic dogs or other pets as the gray wolf's statewide range expands-the calculus changes some. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, for example, favors delisting the wolf and a return to allowing limited hunting and trapping. Others are equally committed to opposing this.
It bears repeating, sometimes emotion can be as influential as biology.