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Points North: How Many Wolves Are Too Many?

Gray Wolf
Gray Wolf

FinalCut_PN_20100609.mp311.09 MB
Along the North Shore, you never know when or where you may encounter a wolf.  Driving through Temperance River State Park on Highway 61 recently, I saw a wolf in the roadside parking lot.  It was mid-day, with plenty of people visiting the park, when what appeared to be a young wolf crossed through the parking area and went up a popular riverside hiking trail.
Curious, I pulled into the lot, jumped out of the truck and followed the wolf up the trail.  Surprised and encouraged with a "shoo!" and "get lost!" from me, the wolf scrambled away through the brush—at a right angle from the hiking trail.  It was then I noticed we had company.  A man with a camera was standing by the river, happily astonished by his close encounter with a wolf.
The wolf had approached within 20 feet of the man, who hadn't been aware of the animal until it was startled by me. He didn't seem alarmed by its closeness, which was almost certainly a matter of chance rather than a display of ill intent by the wolf.  On the contrary, he said seeing the wolf made his day.
And so it goes with most human/wolf encounters, which occur daily across Minnesota's wolf range. Wolves are common in this state.  So common, there are arguably more wolves here than in all of the other wolf states in the Lower 48.
A couple of years ago, I came home one evening to see a large wolf standing on the road in front of my house.  We have dogs and this wolf was a little close for comfort.  Speeding up, I tried to chase the wolf away with my truck.  The animal loped down the road ahead of me for one hundred yards, then jumped across the ditch and stopped.  I pulled up beside it, separated only by a six-foot-wide ditch, and rolled down the window. "Get lost!" I shouted. And the wolf just looked at me. Since my shouts were met with indifference, I decided to step out of the truck, hoping my forward move would convtince the wolf to leave.  Instead it remained standing on the edge of the road right-of-way. Our face-off continued until I threw a softball-sized rock at the wolf. Then it reluctantly trotted into the woods.
 I was returning from grouse hunting and had a shotgun in the truck, so my wolf encounter could have had a different, though unlawful, outcome.  Most of my nearest neighbors have kids and dogs, so shooting the bold wolf may well have been a prudent option.  As most folks who live in wolf or bear country know, humans can coexist with large predators, provided both parties know and respect their boundaries.
The boundary is simply this: we expect wolves to avoid contact with people, pets and livestock.  The vast majority of Minnesota wolves do avoid people and their property.  But dozens of wolf/human conflicts occur annually, so many the government has a problem wolf trapping program and pays compensation for livestock killed by wolves. 
While a serious attack on a human hasn't occurred in this state, wolves displaying unwary or bold behavior are not uncommon. A couple of years ago, a wolf that waited beside a road in Brimson to chase passing cars made the news.  Last winter, the media reported
wolves were sighted on the streets of Ely. The Ely sightings proved to be a catalyst for calls to remove Minnesota wolves from the Endangered Species List and return management authority. 
Since 2007, Minnesota wolves have been twice removed from the Endangered Species List and, due to subsequent lawsuits, returned to federal protection. Under state management, there was a policy allowing problem wolves to be killed when threatening property or people. Apparently, a few wolves were killed under the policy, though far fewer than the 100 or so taken annually by federal predator control trappers.
State management did not allow wolves to be killed via licensed hunting or trapping. So far, Minnesota has indicated that it will wait five years after wolves become a state responsibility before deciding upon their status as a game species.  However, if the 2009 wolf hunting seasons in Montana and Idaho are any indication, Minnesota may create a sport hunt when the opportunity becomes available.
Not all agree, but there are persuasive arguments in favor of hunting or trapping wolves.  For starters, wolves that equate humans with guns or traps are certain to be wary.  A wolf harvest will also defuse some of the frustrations of hunters and people living in the wolf range regarding predation on deer and livestock. 
Decades of sound science indicates a controlled harvest will not threaten the survival of the population.  It is important to consider that previous harvests, which eliminated wolves everywhere in the Lower 48 except northern Minnesota, were the outcome of a century-long war waged against the species. In the past, wolves were killed by all effective means, including poison.  We are very unlikely to rekindle that war.
Still, animosity toward the wolf remains. The statement "There’s too many wolves" will be met with an approving nod more often than not in northern Minnesota.  Some folks believe it is true because they didn’t shoot a deer last fall.  Others see the continuation of Endangered Species listing decades after Minnesota wolves reached population recovery goals as an example of an unresponsive and overreaching federal government.  Still others are frustrated they cannot protect their livestock or pets from wolf depredations.
The reality is more likely that Minnesota has about as many wolves as the habitat can support. Whether or not there are too many is a purely human measure. Personally, when I have to throw rocks at a wolf to make it go away, there is at least one too man.
By Shawn Perich