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MN: Minnesota’s wolves: Dead or alive?

By Elanne Palcich

CHISHOLM, Minn. — The ink to delist the gray wolf from the endangered species list has barely dried on the paper. Already the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the state Legislature have plans to open a sport hunting and trapping season on the wolf. The DNR is backtracking on earlier promises to keep wolves on a five year watch list after removal from endangered designation.

Wolf as an endangered species

The gray wolf was placed on the endangered species list following passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973. Minnesota was the last of the lower 48 states to retain a wolf population. An estimated 350 to 700 wolves were surviving in the area of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Superior National Forest, while a few isolated packs remained in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. In 1978, Minnesota’s wolves were downgraded to “threatened” in order to allow federal agencies to kill problem wolves.

Under the ESA, the wolf population was able to increase. During this same time, DNR policies have favored maintenance of a large deer population. The DNR receives much of its income from the sale of hunting licenses. According to 2010 statistics, with approximately one million deer in the state, 800,000 deer hunting licenses are sold each year, and an average of 240,000 deer are taken.


Deer are a primary prey of the wolf. In predator-prey relationships, a natural balance is maintained. Wolves, for example, tend to cull out the old, weak, and sick members of a herd.

Contrary to popular belief, the wolf is not in direct competition with hunters.

The most recent survey conducted in 2007-8 placed the wolf population at 2,921 animals. Population survey results are somewhat subjective, depending upon “opinion surveys,” peripheral information from studies of other species, and extrapolations from aerial surveys. According to those survey results, there was no significant change in wolf population from 1998 to 2008. However, the wolf population had dispersed into parts of north central and central Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan’s UP, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Delisting begins

In March of 2010, the Minnesota DNR petitioned the U.S. government to delist the gray wolf. In May the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, the Safari Club International, and the National Rifle Association followed suit. In December, the Mining Journal, Marquette, reported that the Fish and Wildlife Service would release a proposal in 2011 to turn management of the region’s wolves to state agencies in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

Mining concerns were eager to remove the wolf as an endangered species. With the protection removed, new mining proposals would no longer need to consider wolf habitat in their environmental review.

The Wild West of politics

The rhetoric to vilify the wolf knows no political boundaries.

In December of 2010, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar wrote to the Department of the Interior saying that the increased number of wolves was “threatening the citizens of my state as well as our livestock and hunting industries.”

U.S. Reps. John Kline, Collin Peterson, and Chip Cravaack added to the hyperbole by introducing legislation to remove wolves from protection “because of all the killings by an ever expanding and increasingly dangerous wolf population.”

On Jan. 26, the day the wolf was delisted, Ed Boggess, director of Fish and Wildlife for the Minnesota DNR, told a panel of state lawmakers, “There’s been a pent-up enthusiasm, a pent-up demand to hunt wolves.” Immediately following, Rep. David Dill (Crane Lake), and Sen. Tom Saxhaug (Grand Rapids), introduced companion bills that would require state officials to schedule wolf hunting at the same time as the deer hunting season, with a secondary wolf trapping season to begin on Jan. 1, 2013.

Aerial hunting

Adding fuel to the fire, Rep. Torrey Westrom (Elbow Lake), sponsored a bill to allow the hunting of coyotes from aircraft and snowmobiles, stating, “This would be just one more way to continue the intrigue and enjoyment many people get out of hunting as well as a creative way to help control the coyote population.”

Westrom said people have been telling him for years how much fun they had hunting wolves from aircraft in the 1960s and 1970s. “I want to bring back something that younger generations have never had the chance to experience.” (Star Tribune, “Westrom proposes allowing coyote hunting from aircraft, snowmobiles,” Feb. 24, 2012) Rep. Dill called aerial coyote hunting “a great idea.”

Is this what awaits the wolf next?

Meanwhile, Sens. Tom Saxhaug, Tom Bakk (Cook), Dave Tomassoni (Chisholm), and Rep. Tom Anzelc (Balsam) introduced SF 1820/HF 2417, which changes requirements for checking of conibear traps and snares from one day to three days. In addition to tripling the torture time, this bill would allow trappers to set out more traps on longer lines, making it easier to trap more wolves. All traps kill more than just the intended prey.

The DNR has currently proposed a limited wolf hunting and trapping season, issuing 6,000 licenses for a wolf hunting/trapping season, at $30 each. Another proposal is to hold a lottery and sell many more licenses. According to DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr, “This animal is a trophy animal.” (Outside with Sam Cook, Jan. 26, 2012)

Nonlethal solutions for predation

While wolf predation of livestock has been one argument for delisting, wolf predation affects less than 2 percent of existing farms. A statewide hunting/trapping season will do nothing to solve these individual problems. In fact, killing strategic members of a pack may put more pressure on the remaining adults to obtain easily available meat, causing packs to migrate into farming territory.

As people who are co-existing with the wolf, we must learn to adapt our own practices. Studies in other countries and states have shown that fencing is a deterrent to predation. Farmers are encouraged to keep their livestock in barns at night and during birthing. Dead carcasses need to be buried or removed so as not to attract wolves. Sheep farmers have found the use of guard dogs to be helpful; while a single dog alone can be wolf prey, two or three dogs can adequately protect a herd.

Pet owners in wolf range need to take extra precautions, such as keeping their dogs in at night, keeping them close to the house, and providing enclosed outdoor protection. Each year, many pets are also killed by hunters and traps.

Wolf as icon

Despite current rhetoric against the wolf, the species has long been an icon of the great north woods of Minnesota. Open season on the wolf is open season on our remaining natural heritage.

In contrast to the current war against the wolves, the Red Lake and White Earth Ojibwe Bands have approved policies protecting the wolf on their reservation lands. The Ojibwe warn that hunting and trapping pressures will put the wolves back on a path toward extinction.

The indigenous people see Wolf as brother. What befalls the wolf befalls us all.