Given the green light now by the feds to lock and load, Minnesota seems generally in a mood to thin the ranks of eastern gray wolves, or canis lupus. Instinctively, these big dogs will respond by retreating into the shadows to conduct their killing less brazenly -- a PR stunt intended if nothing else to assuage the state's collective itchy trigger finger. Regardless, the wolf's survival is ensured: Shoot 'em up or not, the number of these animals roaming the state today likely won't change in 10 years or even 20.
It's the nature of the beast.
This will come as bad news to hunters who think the wolf can somehow be beaten back in favor of boosting whitetail populations. It ain't going to happen, at least not in the entirety of the northern forested region. Instead, more often than not, one dead wolf will be replaced by a live one, and, if necessary, another and another still. El lobo, as it turns out, really abhors a vacuum. And fills it, pronto.
Make no mistake. I hunt deer in northern Minnesota, near Cook, and our bunch routinely comes across wolf scat and tracks, whereas 10 or 20 years ago, we didn't. Similarly, where I chase whitetails in Wisconsin, at a latitude much farther south than Cook, wolves and/or wolf tracks are now ever-present.
Wolves in both of these hunting areas kill deer -- any numbskull knows that. And we don't like it. Worse, we believe, they periodically move deer out of our hunting grounds, which likely has a greater adverse effect on our overall whitetail harvest than the number of animals they actually surround and chew to death.
That said, we realize that factors other than wolves largely determine deer populations in the two areas. We realize as well that wolves in any event will not be easily dissuaded from their bloodthirstiness.
It is true that the folks near Ely and elsewhere across the north who are long tired of their dogs and other pets being attacked and killed perhaps can put the kibosh on these easy pickings with a few cracks from a .243.
Ditto the stockman who during spring calving reaches for his grandfather's .220 Swift and sends a 40-grain hunk of lead toward an unsuspecting moonlight marauder.
But limited triumphs such as these of firepower over fur power will be confined to the margins where people and wolves interact, now that wolves have been removed from the endangered species list. Absent the unlikely return of aerial hunting, bounties or poison, the state's wolf population isn't likely to fall much below its present estimate of about 3,000.
Meaning their consumption of deer -- perhaps 15 to 20 per year per adult wolf -- likely will remain constant.
Yet, and still, significant questions remain in Minnesota about wolf management as it relates to deer and deer management.
One: Will the Department of Natural Resources continue to advocate for the December fantasy hunt it unveiled at its stakeholders meeting last weekend in St. Paul?
Announcing that the agency wanted to manage the wolf as a "trophy" animal, commissioner Tom Landwehr said that rather than allow deer hunters to take wolves opportunistically during the whitetail season (which easily could be accomplished with a quota system), the DNR instead envisions in December the state dispatching phalanxes of newly christened wolf killers from their suburban split-levels to saunter up north for a week or two to get themselves a woof.
This from an agency so concerned about retaining duck hunters it opens the season in mid-September, when ducks are barely fledged, so everyone gets a limit and no one gets cold.
Second: If the DNR wants -- as it justifiably does -- deer hunters to educate themselves about wolves, and to understand that wolves are not the primary determinant of deer numbers across the entirety of the north (thought it might be in certain areas), then the agency should manage regional deer numbers high enough so that hunters don't naturally infer upon wolves a disproportionate effect on deer.
The DNR should also keep deer numbers relatively high so that wolves can't keep severely depressed sub-populations of whitetails from rebounding, as they can, particularly in areas of aging forests and otherwise poor habitat.
This would entail reducing hunters' liberal deer regulations of recent years while better anticipating the eventuality of periodic killer winters that can undercut whitetail populations.
Upshot: If the DNR hopes to convince hunters that wolves don't have a significant adverse effect on deer, prove it by managing for high deer numbers, even while the state's wolf population remains, inevitably, constant.