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Inside the Outdoors: Our wolf debate is as much about culture as conservation

Inside the Outdoors

If you’re looking for a close-to-home issue that’s as polarizing as current national politics, look no farther than the question of whether Minnesota should hold a hunting season for the eastern gray wolf, known through much of our history as the timber wolf. The path to a possible hunt was opened in January by an order under the Trump administration that removed the wolf from the Endangered Species List. Since then, there has already been action in the courts contesting the delisting. There are also bills in the Minnesota legislature with opposing objectives; one to require holding a wolf hunting season, the other to prohibit it.

Minnesota has long held the distinction of offering the eastern gray wolf the most extensive area with suitable living conditions of any place in the lower 48 states. This was true even before it was first placed on the Endangered Species List in the 1970’s, before which it was widely persecuted by being poisoned, trapped, sometimes shot on sight and viewed by some as little more than a varmint that killed livestock, pets and whitetail deer, to be controlled by any and all means.

In point of fact, the gray wolf has never been threatened with extinction. In addition to smaller populations in northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, its range also—and where it is most abundant—includes Canada and Alaska. We’ve come to equate the label “endangered” with the danger of extinction, and in some cases that may be true. But the gray wolf’s time on the Endangered Species List was a matter of uncertainty over its future here in the United States, not its survival as a species.

That doesn’t necessarily mean it should be hunted, but those are two separate and distinct issues. When the wolf ceased being persecuted as a varmint and was given federal protection during the 1970’s—a time when there were far fewer in Minnesota than today—the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) set a population “recovery goal” of 1,600.

Demonstrating the great adaptability nature that gave it, the gray wolf began expanding its range significantly with that federal protection. From such places as the North Shore near Lake Superior, the Iron Range and other northern counties, the population expanded—mostly southward. By 1994, wolves were being seen by National Guard troops training at 53,000-acre Camp Ripley, just north of Little Falls. Today it is estimated that there are 2,700 eastern gray wolves in Minnesota, about 1,100 above the 1970’s goal.


A pack even became established in 2014 within the Elm Creek nature reserve just 20 miles north of Minneapolis. It was reported to be the first wolf pack this close to the Twin Cities in more than a century. The event also serves as a cautionary tale about what can happen when a capable predator such as the gray wolf attempts to live this close to a large population center. When the pack grew to 19 animals, the need for food led the wolves to supplement their primary prey—whitetail deer—with pets and cattle.

Ultimately, over a period of months, a number of the wolves were killed by rangers from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Either through death or migration, the rest of the pack eventually left the area. This course of events demonstrated a less familiar kind of incompatibility between humans and wild creatures. If there are too many deer in a suburban area, the result may be damage to shrubs and collisions with automobiles. When the conflict is between civilization and a highly evolved predator like the gray wolf, people may lose pets or livestock.

Despite such conflicts, it’s undeniable that the gray wolf has star power. It has come to symbolize wilderness as no other creature has, not even our state bird, the loon. This is due in no small part to the fact that—until it was protected—the gray wolf thrived in greatest numbers in the northern reaches of Minnesota, including within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Besides being a skilled predator, the gray wolf is handsome, as handsome as any of the domesticated dog breeds to which it is related—the German shepherd comes immediately to mind—that we keep as hunting companions and house pets. It’s also hard not to admire such a supremely-adapted wild creature.

Minnesotans as a whole are split in their feelings about the harvest of gray wolves. The Minnesota DNR recently conducted a survey of residents, of livestock producers within the state’s main wolf range, and of firearms deer hunters—the hunters thought most likely to be interested in a wolf season. Just shy of 10,000 contacts were made with these groups. Fewer than half of the residents—about 40%—favored the hunting of gray wolves, and less than one-third favored trapping. On the other hand, 80% of livestock producers and deer hunters support a gray wolf hunting season. Eighty-seven percent of residents said they feel it is important to maintain a wolf population in Minnesota.

Whether Minnesota’s gray wolf population is to be “managed,” and how, remains to be seen. Actions in the courts of law, in the Minnesota Legislature, and in the court of public opinion, could all play a role in the eventual outcome.

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