Points North: Should the Boundary Waters Be a Wolf Sanctuary?

Wolf Pack - photo by John Vucetich - Michigan Tech
Wolf Pack - photo by John Vucetich - Michigan Tech

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Should Minnesota establish a wolf sanctuary, where hunting and trapping of the species is not allowed? Recently, the eminent wolf biologist Dr. L. David Mech suggested creating a sanctuary as a compromise to the ongoing controversy over the state's new wolf hunting and trapping season via an interview with the International Wolf Center in Ely.
 
The controversy boils down to a debate between those who believe the wolf population should be managed by hunting and trapping and those who believe the animals should be protected from the same. In the interview, Mech is asked if there is a way to satisfy those who favor recreational wolf hunting as well as those who oppose it.
 
The state's present compromise is to limit the number of wolves killed and to allow them to be taken only during certain seasons, Mech replied. Then he says, "Other than more-stringent regulations on taking, which will bring howls of protest from those in favor of hunting wolves, the only other compromise that has not yet been mentioned is to set aside a certain part of the state where wolves would be protected year-round."
 
He suggested the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as a candidate for a wolf sanctuary, because it is far from areas with livestock. Mech has been studying wolves there since 1966. At one million acres, the BWCAW encompasses 6 percent of the state's wolf range. About 150 wolves in 20 to 30 packs live there. Due to difficult access, wilderness receives minimal hunting and trapping pressure.
 
Curious, I called Dr. Mech to learn more about his idea. He stressed that he is proposing a sanctuary as a type of compromise for the contentious wolf hunting issue. For his position on wolf management, he directed me to his website, where he writes:
 
"Individual citizens have individual opinions about wolf management.  State legislatures and Departments of Natural Resources must balance all these many conflicting views while ensuring that their wolf populations survive but conflict minimally with humans. As long as the wolf is no longer endangered in a particular state, I support that state’s approach to managing its wolves."
 
It would be up the Minnesota Legislature, rather than the DNR, to create a wolf sanctuary. As of this writing, no bills to do so have been introduced.
 
I asked Mech if creating a BWCAW wolf sanctuary might conflict with future efforts to save the area's moose population, which is experiencing a sharp decline. In other words, what if we have to kill wolves to save moose? He said if the present studies determine wolves are a predation problem for moose, someone could propose killing wolves to protect them. However, biologically it would be difficult to kill enough wolves to make a difference. He isn't sure wolves are heavily preying upon moose calves, which some folks speculate is occurring.
 
"Our research has found wolves generally take older moose and some calves," he said.
 
I also talked with DNR large carnivore specialist Dan Stark, who said refuges and sanctuaries are typically created for biological reasons, such as protecting resting or breeding habitat for waterfowl. A wolf sanctuary would be created for societal, rather than biological reasons--a new idea. Currently, Minnesota has areas closed to wolf hunting, such as state parks, national wildlife refuges and some tribal lands. The largest sanctuary is Voyageurs National Park, the only area vast enough to encompass one or multiple wolf packs. Elsewhere, wolves likely move between refuges and areas open to hunting.
 
Hunters and trappers are required to register the wolves they take and to report the kill location, so the DNR can monitor where the harvest occurs on the landscape over time. If future harvest data shows too many wolves have been taken in specific areas, the agency can adjust harvest quotas accordingly. Data from Minnesota’s inaugural hunt suggests most wolf hunting occurs near populated areas. Analyzing the harvest location data from the 2012 hunting and trapping seasons, Stark said wolves are being taken where people have the best access. "Some areas are just more accessible to hunters and trappers due to roads and terrain," he said.
 
Harvest data shows six wolves were taken in or very near the BWCAW in 2012. Along the North Shore, 24 wolves were taken in Lake County and 14  in Cook County. In Cook County, most wolves were taken in areas accessible by roads. A couple of wolves were taken in the BWCAW, as well as one up the Gunflint Trail and three north of Hovland. The BWCAW encompasses roughly one third of Lake and Cook counties. Based on the 2012 data, closing the Boundary Waters to wolf hunting and trapping would have had virtually no effect on the overall wolf harvest.
 
Creating a wolf sanctuary might assuage some critics of recreational wolf hunting and trapping, but it raises larger issues. If we establish a refuge for wolves based upon societal, rather than biological reasons, will we do the same for other species? Certainly, a new wolf sanctuary would open the door to that possibility. I suspect the implications of setting a precedent for societal-based wildlife refuges would be a serious consideration for lawmakers and wildlife managers if a wolf sanctuary proposal were to move forward.
 
However, the chances of that happening this year appear slim. State Representative David Dill, who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee, has said he won’t allow any bills on trapping or guns to pass out of his committee to the House floor, due to his concerns that legislators could then attach wolf-related amendments. Dill’s district includes the BWCAW.

Airdate: March 15, 2013


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