AITKIN COUNTY, Minn. — In Aitkin County’s corner of the north woods, it doesn’t require an arctic front to send a chill down a livestock owner’s spine – just a gray wolf.
On this mid-January day, as the wind whistles through Minnesota’s forest and fields, John Chute’s cows – and more importantly his calves – are a healthy distance from surrounding timber.
Chute notes, “The easier it is for a wolf to check out my young calves, the more likely it will happen.”
By Chute’s count, he’s lost cattle to wolves about a dozen times since the mid-90s. Some confirmed; others suspected.
However, in the past there was no gray area when it came to his response.
“I could jump up and down, and yell and scream, and clap my hands; but that’s about as aggressive as I’m legally allowed to be.”
But that changed Jan. 27. As of that day, the wolf is no longer under the protection of the Endangered Species Act; and it is no longer illegal for a farmer to shoot a wolf – at least under certain circumstances. These are new days for the wolf in Minnesota.
For livestock owners, the strictest state law applies in northern Minnesota -primary range of the wolf and John Chute’s home. If his livestock are under “immediate threat” from a wolf, Chute can fight back.
He says, “If I had a rifle, I could take action – immediate threat. The thing is, in this day and age, we have too many other things in our hands and doing to have a rifle with us all the time.
Changes in wolf management
Enforcing such new wolf rules now falls into the hands of the Minnesota DNR.
“Those are big changes from what’s allowed under endangered species management,” says Dan Stark, DNR large carnivore specialist.
Minnesota wolves had been under federal protection since the mid-70s. The Endangered Species Act only allowed government agents and someone defending a human life to shoot a wolf.
With that protection, Stark says Minnesota’s wolf population grew from several hundred to 3,000 today. That’s more than double the federal government’s recovery range of 1251 to 1400 wolves.
“This has been a significant accomplishment for wolf conservation and wolf recovery,” notes Stark.
Now under state control, there are significant changes in wolf management.
Beyond the new rules that allow livestock and pet owners to use lethal force under certain circumstances, the DNR is proposing a late November hunting season with what it calls a “conservative harvest” of 400 wolves – at least in the first year.
“We have got to collect information about the harvest, so we can measure impacts on the population,” says Stark.
One person who does not worry about a hunt hurting wolf numbers is Peggy Callahan, executive director of the Wildlife Science Center in Anoka County.
“We know that the shoot, shovel and shut up philosophy’s gone on up in northern Minnesota. So can their population survive a hunt? Absolutely,” says Callahan.
She has 58 wolves on site; some of them were raised here. Callahan loves wolves.
However, she says it’s “appropriate” to take them off the endangered species list.
“The Endangered Species Act was put in place to keep, to protect endangered plants and animals; and it was never meant for species to be listed in perpetuity – beyond recovery goals,” says Callahan.
But Howard Goldman, Minnesota director of The Humane Society of the United States says, “In our view, wolves have not recovered.”
His organization, which successfully fought two previous attempts to remove the wolf from the endangered species list, opposes the current delisting and hunt. He’s not ruling out another lawsuit.
“This is a species that was on the brink of extinction. It’s taken 35 years to recover. And now we’re proposing that a season be opened? We think the department and the state’s basic objectives should be the long-term survival of wolves; and hunting for recreation, or sport, or trophies works against the long-term survival of wolves in Minnesota,” says Goldman.
To those who are worried, the DNR’s Stark says, “We don’t want to set numbers back.”
He adds, “The goal is to manage wolves so that they never go back on the endangered species list.”
Where wolves still meet cows
Back up north, John Chute developed his own wolf-management plan long before the current change.
On this chilly day, he finds his big-eared, turf-minded alarm system hiding in the “warmth” of the trees.
“They’re quite the creatures,” Chute says, as he stands near three donkeys. He notes, they bray when trouble prowls.
“The sounding off will many times send the wolf running.”
And Chute intends to keep the donkeys. He doesn’t think the wolves “read that newspaper that says … status has changed.”
Chute understands where he lives. He knows the wolf is here too.
“They all have their place, as we do; and we have to work with them, if we want to live in this part of the world.”