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Inside the Outdoors: In Minnesota, wolf news is always big news

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

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Results from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' 2016-1017 wolf population survey suggest Minnesota's wolf population has increased 25 percent since the 2015-2016 survey. After remaining stable during the past four years, the survey estimates that within Minnesota's wolf range there were approximately 500 wolf packs and 2,856 wolves. The survey's margin of error is about plus or minus 500 wolves. PineandLakes.com Illustration
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If there is one issue that can be counted on to make “page one” in both general news and outdoor news outlets, it is news related to the status and management of Minnesota’s eastern gray wolf—what we have historically called “timber wolf.” That has been borne out in the two weeks since a U.S. District Court judge in California ruled that the gray wolf here and in neighboring Midwest states is to be returned to the Endangered Species List.

With this court decision, management of the wolf within our borders has been taken away from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and our state’s statutes and regulations. The wolf is once again fully protected here, with limited exceptions for verified losses of livestock or pets if a wolf has been determined to be responsible.

Our eastern gray wolves have come a long way since the 1960’s and early 1970’s, when they were unprotected, could be shot indiscriminately, and were actively trapped for their fur. Wearing animal fur was more accepted then than today, and wolf fur was an attractive and functional material on high-end winter clothing. And as late as the mid-1960’s, bounties were still being paid by the State of Minnesota for wolves linked to the killing of livestock.

Back then, the wolf was strictly a creature of Minnesota’s northern counties, associated with wilderness and near-wilderness. Its numbers were estimated to be as low as 350 in the 1960’s. When the wolf was first granted federal protection its numbers began to climb, and its range expanded. There were estimated to be roughly 1,200 by 1979. Minnesota’s wolf population has continued to trend upward, and today is estimated at 2,700.

And the wolf is no longer a creature only of the far North. Packs have established themselves as far south as Central Minnesota, in places like the military’s Camp Ripley in northern Morrison County, not much more than a stone’s throw from Little Falls. Several months ago, while driving a rural road that follows Camp Ripley’s western boundary, I spotted a lone wolf at the mouth of an old logging road. I watched it at close range for several minutes, the animal looking my way and giving no indication of fear of my vehicle stopped on the road’s shoulder, before it turned and trotted unhurriedly into the timber. Lone animals have even been seen in the vicinity of the northern Twin City suburbs.

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Our history of managing wolves has resembled the swing of a pendulum. The wolf went from unappreciated and persecuted, to protected, to “game” status following a rebound in its numbers. Most recent was its removal from the endangered species, but now—in early February—the court decision declaring that the gray wolf will be returned to the endangered list.

To elaborate, the latest swing began with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in November of 2020 issuing regulations removing the gray wolf from the Endangered Species List, regulations that were set to become effective in January of 2021. This led to the current lawsuit on behalf of several groups opposed to the prospect of wolf hunting and trapping.

In the recent California District Court ruling, the judge stated that the FWS had failed to show that gray wolf populations in the Midwest could be sustained without continued status as endangered. While that may be true for states like Wisconsin and Michigan, which have far smaller gray wolf populations, it is hard to find similar logic for Minnesota. The gray wolf population here is now roughly double the target of 1,400 that was set in the DNR’s original wolf recovery plan.

Minnesota held wolf hunting and trapping seasons during 2012, 2013 and 2014, years when the gray wolf was first removed—temporarily, as it turned out—from federal protection. The Minnesota Legislature authorized these seasons, and combined harvest by hunting and trapping totaled 413, 238 and 272 in those three years.

The eastern gray wolf is an iconic animal here in Minnesota, as it is elsewhere. It remains a symbol of wilderness, notwithstanding the fact that it is becoming more and more comfortable in close proximity to humans. That does worry some people. It’s one thing for hungry deer to munch their way through the arbor vitae in your yard, or nip the branch trips on your woody shrubs. It’s quite another to have wolves feeling comfortable in close proximity to human habitations where pets spend time outdoors, or where livestock are kept.

A recent survey of 10,000 state residents by the Minnesota DNR—conducted in collaboration with the University of Minnesota—revealed that 49% of respondents overall do not favor hunting or trapping of gray wolves. The numbers break differently among those who raise livestock or hunt whitetail deer, and those who do not. Eighty-eight percent of livestock producers and hunters support limited hunting of wolves, and only slightly fewer support wolf trapping. On the other hand, only 41% of Minnesotans overall support a wolf hunt, and even fewer—just 30%—support the trapping of wolves.

Of course, support or opposition seems moot for the time being, given the California District Court’s ruling. But there is always the possibility that the District Court’s ruling could be appealed. The U.S. Congress could act, as well, as it did in removing federal protection of wolves in several states in the West in the last decade. But with the present gridlock in Congress on just about every issue, that seems an unlikely prospect.

Beyond this is a widespread belief that Minnesota Governor Tim Walz would oppose any future wolf hunting or trapping seasons if the pendulum of federal gray wolf management should swing the other way again.

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Many Minnesotans believe there is something intrinsically special about the gray wolf that makes harvest by man unthinkable. Others believe that this apex predator can only coexist with humans in numbers that are in balance with its habitat, with limited direct conflict, and that complete protection may not be the answer.

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Mike Rahn, columnist

Related Topics: INSIDE THE OUTDOORSNORTHLAND OUTDOORS
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