Minnesota wolves and the hunt of them are the subject of scrutiny

By T.W. Budig
ECM Capitol reporter

The state’s first ever wolf hunting and trapping season is history.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced Wednesday (Jan. 2) wolf season will close in the last open zone at the end of shooting and trapping hours on Thursday (Jan. 3).

“Our plan was to close the season when the harvest was at or projected to reach 400 (wolves),” said Dan Stark, large carnivore specialist for the DNR in a statement.

Harvest numbers out of the last open zone, the northwest zone, showed that 181 wolves had been registered.

Late and early season wolf harvest numbers combined total 395 animals.

DNR officials insist they’ve been conservative in setting the 400-wolf harvest season blink-off threshold.

Wolf hunters in the east-central zone, a rectangle east of the Mississippi River including the cities of Milaca and Hinckley, have taken nine wolves late season, according to the Department of Natural Resources website.

The DNR closed the east-central zone on Dec. 14.

In the Arrowhead or northeast zone, which includes the cities of Duluth and Virginia, hunters and trappers took 58 wolves late season and the DNR also closed this zone.

While having fewer than 750 wolves in the 1950s, it’s estimated that Minnesota had a stable wolf population of about 3,000 animals going into the hunting and trapping season.

The state’s wolf population is the largest of any state in the lower 48, according to the DNR.

Legislators are pleased with the results of the wolf season.

“I think it’s been going very, very well,” said Rep. Tom Hackbarth, R-Cedar, shortly before closure of the season.

Hackbarth, former environment and natural resources committee chairman, personally believed the 400-animal cutoff should have been higher.

But the DNR went with a more conservative number, and he accepted it, Hackbarth said.

Incoming House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee Chairman David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, also said the season was going well.

“I have not heard a single complaint by any hunter or trapper,” said Dill, speaking in late December.

Although withholding judgement for now, Dill senses the reason why zones have closed early is because the state’s wolf population is actually larger than currently believed.

“That’s what I suspect,” he said.

Hunters in the early wolf- hunting season, that closed on Nov. 18, took 147 wolves.

In the east-central zone, hunters registered eight wolves, with 61 wolves being registered in the northeast zone and 78 in the northwest zone.

At that time, DNR officials thought the wolf-harvest trend mirrored the deer harvest,

“The harvest was highest at the beginning of the season then declined as fewer hunters returned afield,” Stark said in a press release.

One lawmaker with a fresh wolf pelt currently on a stretcher-board in his basement is Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau.

Fabian, who teams with a friend, a federal trapper, trapped a 95-pound wolf — good-size for the area, Fabian said — while working a long trap line through the Beltrami Island State Forest area.

They trapped a second wolf at exactly the same spot as the first, Fabian said.

The trappers used scent to lure the animals.

“It’s very, very educational for me,” said Fabian, an “avid” sportsman, of learning how to trap.

This education includes learning to skin a wolf and prepare the pelt.

One day the pelt, measuring more than seven feet in length, may be on display in Fabian’s legislative office in St. Paul.

Like Hackbarth, Fabian wanted the wolf quota to be higher than 400 animals.

But he appreciates the “compromise” was a means of getting the legislation through, he explained.

Fabian has “no doubt” the wolf range in Minnesota is expanding and suspects the number of wolves is under-counted.

As for this season’s harvest numbers, a nationally recognized wolf expert suggests there may not be a lot of information to be culled.

University of Minnesota Professor and U.S. Geological Survey biologist Dave Mech, who testified before legislative committees last year, indicated little can be extracted from the early harvest numbers.

There’s so much chance involved in wolf-hunter success, Mech said in an email, “nothing much” can be concluded.

“I said before the hunt and still believe that any result would not have surprised me,” he said.

In testimony last year, Mech, who has spent 53 years studying wolves, styled the DNR wolf management proposal as excellent.

Wolves are anything but stationary, he explained in testimony.

Wolf packs may have ranges of 60 to 80 square miles, with the animals travelling 13, 14, 15 miles a day.

In Minnesota wolves largely feed on deer, an adult wolf consuming the equivalent of about 18 deer a year.

In general, wolves kill deer that are old or otherwise physically impaired, explained Mech.

“That’s a tough one,” he said when asked whether people should fear wolves.

Two people in North American have been killed by wolves, he explained.

And it’s wise to show caution when dealing with large predators.

But Mech suggested the public needn’t be overly alarmed.

“I myself wouldn’t be afraid to get out and camp in the woods with wolves around,” Mech said.

Lawmakers may “tweak” the wolf season this coming legislative session, Hackbarth said.

Since wolves in Minnesota were removed from the federal threatened and endangered species list, wolf management has fallen to the state.

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