The wolf remains as one more species in a vast complex of creatures interacting the way they always have. It is neither saint nor sinner except to those who make it so,” wrote wolf expert David Mech in Biological Conservation in 2012.
In the 1940s, wolves were trapped, shot, hunted from planes, and dangerously close to being wiped out. A 1950s study estimated the Northern Minnesota population to be between 450 and 700 wolves.
In 1967, the wolf was classified as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Preservation Act and the 1974 Endangered Species Act, which superseded the ESPA. In 1978, the gray wolf’s status was upgraded to “threatened,” allowing them to be killed only if they posed a threat to humans or livestock.
In 2003, the US Fish and Wildlife Service established three distinct wolf populations by region. This allowed the Western Great Lakes population, including the Minnesota and Wisconsin gray wolf, to be taken off the endangered species list before other wolf populations had recovered, creating one of many controversies around the human-wolf relationship.
Monitoring by Mech and others found wolf populations had been increasing over the years, from 1,500 to 1,750 in 1978-79 to 2,450 by 1997-98—enough that gray wolves could have been delisted then.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) wanted to take over federal management of the wolf in 1974, when state officials asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service not to list them as endangered.
The DNR prepared a Wolf Management Plan in 1999, but a protracted legal push-pull among government agencies and citizen groups both for and against delisting delayed any plan for over a decade.
According to a May 30, 2013, MinnPost article by Ron Meador, in 2011 the Minnesota legislature “scrapped” the five-year moratorium requirement between delisting and when there could be a hunting season, but still required a public comment period.
In January 2012, the wolf was delisted and the DNR implemented the Management Plan under expedited emergency rules. The DNR fulfilled the comment requirement with a 30-day online survey rather than inviting written or spoken comments.
On November 3, 2012, Minnesota held its first-ever wolf hunting and trapping season.
The early wolf season runs concurrent with deer season. Hunting and trapping begins in late November and runs until the state’s “target harvest” is met, or until the end of January, whichever comes first.
The target harvest is an approximate number, used by the DNR to determine when to end the season without killing more wolves than can be replaced.
A wolf license is for one wolf per season that must be registered on the day of the kill. Wolves can be shot with a firearm or crossbow and, in the later season, captured with a steel leg trap or a neck snare.
In 2012, the Minnesota DNR set a target harvest of 400 wolves and awarded nearly 7,000 hunting licenses via lottery. When the first season ended on January 3, 413 wolves had been killed. The next season closed on December 30, 2013, with 237 wolves killed out of a target harvest of 220.
Wisconsin’s season closed December 23 with 257 wolves killed. While Minnesota issued fewer wolf licenses in the second season and cut its target harvest in half, Wisconsin more than doubled both.
Of Wisconsin’s last wolf harvest, 35 were killed with the use of tracking dogs, a practice known as “hounding” that is controversial even among hunters. Wisconsin is the only state in which hounding is legal.
In August 2012, the Wisconsin Humane Society sued the DNR, alleging that hounding poses a significant risk of injuring the dogs. A Dane County judge issued an injunction against the practice, but in December 2013, an appeals judge lifted the ban.
A bill to ban hounding was introduced last session by Senator Fred Risser (D-Madison), but it stalled in the Natural Resources Committee without a hearing.
Wolves are hunted for their pelts, which sell for up to $400 for use in coats, hats, mittens, bedspreads, and wall hangings. This requires trapping methods that preserve the pelt, but which opponents decry as cruel.
Though foothold traps can no longer be serrated, snares can be set tightly enough to choke to death the animal that gets caught in them—which is not always the intended wolf. Fox, squirrels, raccoons, skunks, beaver, muskrats, and household dogs and cats have been trapped by neck snares.
On February 12, 2013, the national Humane Society filed a lawsuit to suspend the hunt and reinstate the five-year moratorium. The case has been heard and is awaiting a decision.
Some deer and moose hunters support the wolf hunt, believing wolves scare away and/or kill their quarry, but evidence does not support this.
“We’ve noticed deer move relatively little in response to the proximity of wolves,” Glenn Del Giudice, a DNR specialist on moose, deer, and wolves wrote in a 2009 issue of Whitetales.
A healthy deer can run 34 mph; a wolf can sprint 42 mph, but it must get close enough to make that sprint. It is young, infirm, and/or nutritionally compromised deer that are subject to wolf predation.
Weather plays a role, as does re-growth of cleared forest. Deep snow makes it harder for deer to access food, and weaker deer make easier prey. They are also more likely to die from disease or starvation.
The decline in the Minnesota moose population is also sometimes blamed on wolves.
“Just the fact they are killing moose doesn’t mean they are the cause of the decline. But they are killing moose,” Del Giudice explained in a presentation at the International Wolf Center in Ely, an organization for education about the gray wolf that does not take a position either for or against the wolf hunt.
A 2013 study of Minnesota’s moose population found 22 calf mortalities by predators—67 percent of them wolves and 17 percent bear.
The moose decline is multifaceted and needs more study. There was 70 percent mortality among calves, for reasons including winter ticks, wound infection, starvation, and even being killed by moose cows.
Wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare, but wolf contacts seem to be increasing. Last August, a Grand Marais woman was approached by a wolf while she was gardening. She chased it away with her garden hose, but several dogs were reported injured or killed.
DNR Conservation Officer Darin Fagerman says they’ve had 16 wolf contacts in Grand Marais within a short period of time.
It’s always been legal to kill a wolf if it’s attacking a human. Since 1978, it’s been legal to kill a wolf that is presenting an imminent threat to humans, livestock, or pets. But nuisance wolves—those preying on livestock or pets, but not presenting an imminent threat—are harder to deal with.
The Department of Agriculture offers reimbursement, but they first examine the carcass to determine a wolf was responsible. “One, it wasn’t always easy to verify wolf kills because all the evidence was consumed,” says Jeremy Geske of the Minnesota Lamb and Wool Producers.
“[Farmers] knew they were short animals, but if they couldn’t find the kill site, no compensation.” Even if they find the carcass, it is not always possible to prove it was a wolf, rather than a cougar or a bear.
Minnesota has the distinction of being the only state in the Lower 48 that is still home to its original wolf population. Until the early 1900s, the gray wolf inhabited all of Minnesota, but a bounty on the pelts contributed to their diminishing numbers. Removal from the endangered species list doesn’t mean they aren’t still vulnerable.
A disease outbreak, like canine parvovirus, could kill a high percentage of pups if it became prevalent among the adults. Hunting and trapping can also leave orphaned pups if the alpha or breeding pair in a wolf pack is killed.
A 2006 study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management analyzed pup survival after the loss of one or both parents. The team of nine researchers from the US, Norway, Sweden, and Greece advise that “management only remove wolves from productive packs when pups are more than six months and packs contain more than six members.”
Lori Schmidt, curator at the International Wolf Center, says, “Wolves’ survival depends on their pack culture,” and care of the pups is at the center of pack activity. Adults, including last years’ pups, now grown, help care for the new pups.
Companion bills have been introduced in the state legislature (HR2680 and SF556) to put a hold on the wolf hunt until a task force can be convened that includes “at least one biologist who is not employed by and does not receive funding from [the DNR].” The task force would study the effects of the hunt on wolf populations, gauge public sentiment about the hunt, and “increase the number of trained wolf counters.”
The bills also require the DNR to close tribal lands to trapping and hunting wolves. In theory, a tribe can currently prohibit wolf hunting on their land, but, in practice, they are unable to close their borders.
At Fond du Lac, for example, 58 percent of the land within reservation borders is owned by the state, county, or by non-tribal members. Even though the land is within the reservation, the Band can’t disallow hunting on those parcels, which are mixed in side-by-side with tribal land parcels like a checkerboard.
Mike Schrage, a wildlife biologist with Fond du Lac, says the Band has asked the DNR to prohibit wolf hunting within reservation boundaries—as Wisconsin has already done—but the DNR has not honored those requests.
John Erb, with the DNR, explained hunting zones:
The wolf zones were initially delineated with the intent of closely following the boundaries of Tribal Treaty Areas in the state so we could, if needed, manage the harvest in the context of state-tribal considerations. So the NE zone largely corresponds to the 1854 Treaty Area, while the East-Central Zone largely corresponds to that portion of the 1837 Treaty Area within MN. The NW Zone is just the rest of approximate wolf range outside of those treaty areas.
Schrage says the Band allows hunters and trappers to take all other species in accordance with state laws, and they “typically take more deer and bear off the reservation each year than tribal members do.”
But the wolf is a special case, deeply valued within Anishinaabe culture. “Many Band members view wolf hunting and trapping as culturally offensive.”
Ely artist Sean Chosa, whose wolf-themed art was featured last fall at the Wolf Center, says there are parallels between the fate of the wolf and the fate of Native people. “Modern needs and excesses threaten the habitat of both...Whatever happens to the wolf happens to the Native American.”
As humans and wolves expand their territories and come into greater contact, our relationship to the wolf will determine its future and survival. We can see the wolf as a fellow traveler, whose fate is intertwined with our own, or we can look upon it as a competitor for resources that must be controlled.
Anne Stewart is a freelance writer who lives near Ely.
Canoeing, camping, and snowshoeing are high on her activity list. Her writing has appeared in Boundary Waters Journal and Ely Summer & Winter Times. In 2007, she published a children’s book, I Saw a Moose Today. Her website is AnneStewart.info.