Minnesota hunters have killed 119 wolves in the first 10 days of a controversial hunting season that opened Nov. 3.
The Department of Natural Resources set a limit of 200 wolves that can be taken during the first part of a two-part season. The early hunt ends Sunday.
"I don't think we'll reach 200" by then, DNR wolf specialist Dan Stark said Monday. That's because most deer hunters are done for the season, officials said. And that means fewer hunters will be out in the woods this week.
"Most [people] who are hunting wolves in the early season are doing it while deer hunting," Stark said. "People take time off of work, and the majority of deer hunters are out the first two or three days of the season. After that, the numbers fall down."
The DNR issued 3,600 permits for the early wolf-hunting season and 2,400 permits for a late season that will be open to both trappers and hunters and run from Nov. 24 to Jan. 31. If fewer than 200 wolves are killed during the first season, the second season's limit will be increased by the deficit number but can't exceed a total of 400 for both seasons.
By late Monday, the DNR had reported 119 wolves killed in the three hunting zones. The hunt was closed Nov. 5 in the east-central zone, because eight wolves had been killed there, close to a limit of nine set for that area. In the northeast zone, 53 wolves have been killed, nearing a quota of 58. The third zone is in the northwest part of the state, where 58 wolves have been taken; the quota there is 133.
Before the wolf hunt began, Stark estimated that 70 wolves would be taken in the early season. But the estimate was merely a guess based on hunts in other states.
Any number of factors could affect the hunt in Minnesota compared to other states, he said.
"The results are what they are at this point," he said. "We sold 3,600 licenses and we took  wolves. That's about as much info we know for sure. ... We can't draw a lot of conclusions at this point until we have all the data and we do additional surveys with hunters."
Stark has heard only a few anecdotal stories about the wolf hunt, primarily from those who went into the woods looking for deer.
"Some have been surprised to have even seen a wolf. They've heard wolves in the past and seen signs of wolves in the area, so they bought a [wolf] license on the off chance they might have an opportunity," Stark said. "They've been surprised that they did."
But people shouldn't jump to the conclusion that there are more wolves out there than the 3,000 estimated in 2008, DNR officials said.
"It's way too early to do that," said Steve Merchant, the interim head of the DNR's wildlife management section. A wolf population survey will be done this winter, he said.
The hunt has outraged wolf activists who argue that the DNR is being overzealous in allowing hunting just months after the wolf was taken off the federal endangered-species list this year.
"I think this wolf hunt is tragic," said Maureen Hackett, founder and president of Howling for Wolves. The fact that 119 wolves have already been killed this season is "horrific," she said.
"It proves the DNR didn't know what was going to happen," she said. "There's a lot of value having the wolf alive, and to allow people just to shoot it is hurtful to many people, including the tribes who value the wolf and our wildlife economy."
The winter wolf survey, combined with data and surveys from the hunt, should provide the DNR and others with a lot more information.
One of the "big unknowns" that has to be resolved is how much the wolf hunt was affected by having large numbers of deer hunters in the woods, Merchant said.
"We just didn't have anything to compare it to," he said, pointing out that Minnesota has more deer hunters than most states. Western states and Canada, where wolf-harvest rates are low, "simply don't have the amount of deer-hunter disturbance that we do," he said.
Wolf hunters who are also deer hunting may be more motivated "to stay out longer because they want to get a deer," Merchant said. "But we don't know yet. We're just speculating."
But DNR officials also would like to find out how many were in the woods focusing their hunt on wolves.
"Or are they just sitting in a deer stand waiting for a wolf to come by?" Stark said. "One thing that affects success rates is hunter effort. ... If you're just hunting opportunistically, you're not going to have as high of a success rate as you would if you go out there and try to call or attract wolves to a site using bait."
Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788