By Sam Cook
Duluth News Tribune
ST. PAUL — The gray wolf is likely to become a trophy hunting and trapping species this fall. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources proposed a limited hunting and trapping season on wolves Friday at its annual Roundtable meeting in St. Paul.
The season would mark the first time in more than 35 years that wolves could be taken legally in Minnesota. Wolves were listed on the federal Endangered Species list in 1974.
“This animal is a trophy animal,” said Tom Landwehr, DNR commissioner. “It will be treated as a trophy, not as a vermin animal.”
The DNR must seek legislative approval to issue licenses and hold a lottery for hunting and trapping permits, said Ed Boggess, director of the DNR’s division of fish and wildlife. Although the agency has the power to hold a season, licensing is approved by the Legislature.
The season tentatively would take place sometime from late November to early January, Boggess said, but the DNR didn’t specify how many permits might be issued to hunters and trappers. Nor would it specify what it considered a safe harvest level. Those issues will be discussed during the upcoming legislative session, Boggess said.
“We want to take a conservative approach initially,” Boggess said. “We don’t know what kind of success rates we’ll see.”
Safe harvest levels for predators like wolves can be as high as 30 percent, said Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the DNR. But the DNR did not indicate that it intended to harvest that many wolves.
The hunting and trapping seasons could be tailored to remove animals in areas where livestock depredation is occurring, Boggess said. That’s one reason for a hunting and trapping season, he said. Minnesota’s wolf population is stable, Boggess said, and the intent of a wolf hunt is not to control the wolf population.
“There’s also a segment of the population that would like to have a wolf season,” Stark said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the gray wolf in the Great Lakes region from the Endangered Species list in late December, opening the way for management by individual states. The ruling was published in the Federal Register on Dec. 28, and the DNR could officially take over management of wolves in Minnesota on Jan. 28.
Minnesota has had a wolf management plan in place for several years, anticipating de-listing by the federal government. Minnesota’s current wolf population is estimated at about 3,000 animals. The state’s wolf management plan calls for a minimum of 1,600 wolves in the state but sets no maximum population.
Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association, thinks the DNR is being too conservative with its proposed wolf hunt. He would like to see a season that called for taking up to 25 percent of the current wolf population, or 750 animals.
“I think they’re being way too cautious,” Johnson said. “And I definitely feel they should involve deer hunters and have the wolf season during the deer season.”
Many northern Minnesota deer hunters believe that wolves are killing too many deer. But DNR officials say wolves play a small role in the size of the deer population.
“I don’t think deer management is related to a wolf season,” Stark said, “and I don’t think it should be. The things driving deer harvest are hunter success and winter severity.”
Nancy Gibson, a board member with the International Wolf Center in Ely, likes the DNR’s approach to a wolf season.
“I’m pleased because the DNR is going to take it slow and be very methodical,” Gibson said. “They’re opening it up to the Legislature, which will allow for public testimony. … I’m proud of Minnesota. We’ve been a focal point for wolf research and having the Wolf Center, and we have a DNR that’s trying to make the right move. Nobody wants it (wolf management) to go back to federal control.”
Howard Goldman, Minnesota director of the Humane Society of the United States, said his group opposes the proposed hunt and also opposed de-listing.
“However, we’re pleased that the department (DNR) seems to be taking such a conservative, careful, cautious approach to this,” Goldman said. “We’ll be monitoring this very closely.”
State Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, chairman of the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, indicated the DNR’s wolf season proposal may be somewhat conservative.
“We have to move forward carefully,” McNamara said, “but we have to have a significant hunting season this fall. I’m certainly hopeful that people will be able to be in a deer stand and potentially shoot both a deer and a wolf. Many of us who hunt in the far north feel that the number of deer is affected by the number of wolves.”
L. David Mech, world-renowned wolf researcher for the U.S. Geological Survey, said Minnesota has enough wolves to ensure their future success even if hunting is allowed. He believes a season on wolves could be beneficial in eliminating them in areas where they are known to cause depredation on livestock.
“I think it would help minimize the conflicts with wolves, especially now that it’s not clear whether (the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s) Wildlife Services will continue operating,” Mech said.
Wildlife Services trapped and killed about 215 wolves in Minnesota in 2011 but has not been funded for 2012.
Mech said data on wolf harvests, mostly in Canada and the Yukon, indicate that up to about 30 percent of a wolf population could be safely harvested, although some data supports an “extremely conservative” harvest figure of 17 percent, he said. Mech said it’s unlikely Minnesotans would take many wolves, especially as many as 30 percent.
“There’s no way we’re going to come close to that,” Mech said. “I don’t think the motivation is there from the public. Even in the period before wolves were protected and were available all year around legally, people would get maybe 100 to 200 per year.”
Wolves are currently hunted in Canada and Alaska and in two western states.