Points North: Wolf Hunting Makes An End Run Around Public Discourse

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Last July, Minnesota's state government shut down when the Governor and Legislature couldn't agree on how to balance the budget. Our duly elected met in St. Paul, presumably to resolve budget issues and reached agreement on, of all things, wolf hunting. While taxpayers worried about such mundane topics as public school funding and rising property taxes, lawmakers made sure the state could open a wolf hunting season as soon as the animals were removed from the federal Threatened Species list. In recent news reports, DNR officials have said they may hold a wolf season as soon as this year.

The hunting authorization alters Minnesota's existing wolf management plan, which called for a moratorium on hunting and trapping during the first five years of state control. The moratorium was recommended by a citizen's committee convened in the late 1990s to provide balanced public input to the DNR's wolf management plan. As a member of the citizen committee, I can say killing or not killing wolves was the core issue we confronted.

The hunting and trapping moratorium was a compromise that allowed the committee to reach consensus on its recommendations to the DNR. The moratorium applied only to state-licensed hunting and trapping, which were adamantly opposed by wolf advocates. A key provision allowed citizens to kill wolves in defense of livestock and pets, which was considered a necessity by wolf management advocates.

In recent years, wolves have been returned to state management for brief periods, although successful lawsuits by wolf advocates restored federal protection. During the times of state management, citizens legally killed problem wolves with little ado and no controversy. For decades, depredating wolves have been controlled with a government trapping program. Even most wolf advocates agree a control program is necessary to reduce wolf-human conflicts and encourage public acceptance of the animal.

But it is one thing to kill problem wolves and quite another to hunt them for sport. While there is a market for wolf pelts, which currently fetch anywhere from $50 to $500, economics are unlikely to motivate prospective Minnesota wolf hunters. Instead the wolf will be treated as a trophy, an animal you hunt just for the experience of doing so.

Why did lawmakers use the state shutdown as a smokescreen for authorizing wolf hunting? After all, wolf hunting and trapping have been prohibited in Minnesota for more than 30 years, why the rush to declare open season? Are we being overrun with wolves?

The latter is unlikely. Minnesota's wolf population has remained stable at around 3,000 animals for more than a decade. Wolves occupy nearly all of the state's suitable habitat and, aside from occasional roamers, don't seem to be expanding southward to areas with far less habitat and far more people. Remarkably, during the era of wolf protection, northern Minnesota's deer herd has reached record abundance. In some deer hunting zones within the wolf range, the annual bag limit is five whitetails per hunter. Beavers, another common wolf prey, are so abundant they are often considered a nuisance.

Some folks may disagree, but the abundance of both wolves and their prey suggests we don't need to control wolves in order to boost populations of deer for better hunting. In fact, many people living within the wolf range may well argue we need an abundance of wolves to keep whitetail numbers in check. Also, the wolf population would have to be significantly reduced to in order to make a noticeable difference in deer numbers.

Idaho and Montana began hunts intended to aggressively reduce wolf abundance after western wolves were removed from the federal protection in 2011. Both states claim wolf predation caused populations of elk and other big game to crash. While Minnesota probably has more wolves in a couple of northern counties than are found in the entire Mountain West, it is unlikely a similar management scheme will be employed here.

Wildlife biologists, including famed wolf researcher L. David Mech, say wolves can be hunted and trapped without threatening the survival of the species. According to biologists, Minnesota's present wolf population could sustain an annual harvest of a few hundred animals. It is likely we could expect a new Minnesota wolf hunt to have a harvest goal within that range.

If such a season does occur. Minnesota wolves won’t be easy to hunt. You can spend a long time in the woods and never see a wolf. In Ontario, where wolf hunting is allowed, hunting techniques include baiting and cruising frozen lakes with snowmobiles to look for wolves out on the ice. Coyote hunters in Minnesota and elsewhere use calls to mimic prey animals in distress or howling to attract their quarry. Such techniques will likely work for Minnesota wolves, too, though some, particularly baiting and shooting from snowmobiles may be socially unacceptable.

If the state has any wolf management objectives other than killing the animals for sport, trapping should be considered as the primary management tool. Trappers could target wolves in places where the animals come into conflict with humans, something unlikely to occur with a wolf hunt. Trappers could be trained to use humane, best management practices and be directed to problem areas. If Minnesota must harvest wolves, it would make sense to direct the harvest to places where wolves are not welcome.

Before any harvest occurs, however, the DNR Division of Wildlife must be fully transparent about how the authorization of hunting and trapping will be implemented into its wolf management plan. The public should be given an opportunity to weigh in on any possible wolf harvest, though this seems unlikely to happen if officials are already considering opening a hunt this year. Actually, the State has already effectively avoided public debate. Lawmakers did an end run around public discourse by authorizing the wolf hunt during the state shutdown. It is now up to the DNR bureaucracy to carry the ball forward.

Airdate: January 6, 2012

Photo courtesy of Troy B. Thompson via Flickr.

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