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Minnesota officials wrestle with details of wolf hunt

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

It seems a reasonable assumption that Minnesota will have a wolf hunting and trapping season this fall. But the details of that season are still the topic of much debate.

Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, and Sen. Tom Saxhaug, DFL-Grand Rapids, each have introduced bills calling for wolf seasons. Their bills, which have the same language, call for a wolf hunting season to begin no later than the first day of Minnesota’s firearms deer season, which opens Nov. 3 this year. The legislators propose a wolf trapping season to begin Jan. 1, 2013.

Under the proposed bills, a resident wolf hunting license would cost $38, a non-resident hunting license $195, and a trapping license $50. The bill also would allow the DNR commissioner to limit the number of wolves harvested and to establish a lottery for issuing licenses.

The DNR earlier proposed a wolf season to run from Nov. 24 through Jan. 5, or until a quota of 400 wolves is met. DNR officials proposed offering up to 6,000 licenses using a lottery system.

Dill thinks the two sides will work out a season.

“I think there’s going to be a compromise,” Dill said Thursday. “This is the first time since I’ve been in the Legislature, with something that rises to this level, that without a big hubbub we can iron out the difference. I think it’s agreed we’re going to have a wolf season.”

The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association supports a wolf season that would be open during the firearms deer hunting season, but the DNR doesn’t favor a wolf season in which wolves would be taken merely as an “incidental take” while hunters are pursuing other species such as deer.

“Our proposal is a separate season that takes into account when pelts are prime and have their highest value,” the DNR’s Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist, told Forum Communications in late January. “This approach will provide hunters and trappers the opportunity to specifically target wolves while minimizing conflicts with other hunting seasons.”

DNR officials have said they want to take a conservative approach to the wolf season, learning from this first year and using that information to shape future seasons.

“One of the things legislators are hearing is that hunters definitely want to have (a wolf season) during the deer season,” said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association.

He also will urge legislators and DNR officials to manage the wolf hunt in two different areas identified in the DNR’s Wolf Management Plan. One of those areas is Zone A, primarily Northeastern Minnesota. Zone B is the rest of the state.

Johnson said if wolf licenses were issued over the counter rather than through a lottery, as the DNR has proposed, and the season was held during the firearms deer season, the state might sell as many as 75,000 or 100,000 licenses.

“One hundred thousand licenses, even at $20 each, that’s $2 million that would come in,” Johnson said.

But the DNR would have to be diligent about having hunters register their wolves to stay within the harvest cap, Johnson said.

Dill said he believes over-the-counter sales of wolf licenses is unlikely in this first season.

Ken Soring, DNR regional enforcement supervisor at Grand Rapids, also has heard a lot of support among deer hunters for having wolf season during the firearms deer season.

“If deer hunters had an option to buy a tag (to take a wolf), that might even be a pretty marketable hunt for non-residents,” Soring said. “Where else can you hunt deer and have a chance at a wolf? I think that’s something people would drive for.”

Management costs

Managing Minnesota’s wolves will cost more than a half-million dollars in the state’s next fiscal year, the Department of Natural Resources says. The state took over management of the species Jan. 27, after it was removed from the federal Endangered Species List.

The DNR’s Stark says managing the wolf will cost $546,000 from July 1, 2012, to June 30, 2013. Of that, $275,000 is for wolf depredation management, which means trapping wolves that have caused damage to livestock or pets.

Another $131,000 is for staff time, $100,000 for wolf research and monitoring, and $45,000 to administer proposed wolf hunting and trapping seasons, Stark said. Most of that funding would come from the DNR’s Game and Fish Fund, which is derived primarily from license dollars.

The DNR plans to conduct a wolf population survey starting this year similar to surveys it has done in the past, Stark said.

That study would involve radio-collaring some wolves starting early next summer to monitor their movements and pack sizes. In addition, resource professionals from several natural resources agencies would be asked to record observations of wolves and wolf sign as they go about their jobs. Those observations, along with information from the radio-collared wolves, would be put into population models to determine a population estimate.

Currently, about 3,000 wolves are thought to be roaming Minnesota, primarily in the forested region and the transition zone between forests and prairies.

Depredation issues

Stark said he’s spending most of his time now on wolf depredation issues, mostly answering questions about what role the state will play in addressing depredation. In the past, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services program in Minnesota trapped and killed wolves where they were causing livestock depredation. In the past year, they trapped and killed about 215 wolves. But that program, based in Grand Rapids, has lost its funding. That leaves depredation management to the state for the time being, although Minnesota senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar are trying to get federal funding reinstated.

Currently, the state has 19 private trappers who had already been trained by the DNR to deal with depredation complaints, Stark said. The agency plans to train more trappers for that purpose, Stark said. The only active depredation complaint being worked now is near Nashwauk, where a wolf is believed to have attacked and injured a dog, Stark said.

Livestock depredation complaints usually pick up in April and continue through July and August as calves are born to cattle, he said.

The DNR has designated three of its conservation officers to deal with wolf issues, including depredation complaints, the DNR’s Soring said. The state’s Wolf Management Plan calls for adding three conservation officers to the state’s current force specifically for wolf issues. Money for those positions would have to be appropriated by the Legislature, Soring said.

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