State wildlife officials are planning a wolf hunting season that would put the long-term survival of the animal above the zeal of hunters, an indication of the careful line they must walk between the competing passions that the predator has generated for decades.
Yet the rules of a hunting season, they said Friday, will be up to the Legislature -- meaning that the wolf will remain as politicized as ever.
"There are people who think we should wipe it off the face of the Earth, and people who say put it on an altar," said Tom Landwehr, state Natural Resources commissioner. "And at the end of the day we are not going to bring the two ends together."
Still, the state's first-ever wolf season will be a key test of Minnesota's ability to manage the Great Lakes wolf after it officially comes off the federal endangered species list Jan. 27. After more than 30 years of federal protection, an estimated 3,000 of the wolves now live in Minnesota, by far the largest population in any of the lower 48 states. There are about 1,500 in Wisconsin and Michigan, and about 1,600 in five Western states.
Wildlife officials said that at least initially, they want the wolf to have its own hunting season between November and January, when the pelts are at their finest and the deer hunting season is over. They would also prefer a lottery system to sell a small number of licenses rather than an unlimited number sold over-the-counter.
Ideally, such a design would help create a "hunting and conservation aesthetic" around the wolf that would elevate it to the status of a trophy animal, said Dan Stark, a wolf biologist for the Department of Natural Resources.
Legislators and top wildlife officials said their primary goal is to make certain the wolf doesn't go back on the endangered species list -- either because its numbers drop below 1,600, the minimum called for in the state's plan, or because of a lawsuit by conservation groups that challenge the state's management.
"We want to work toward keeping it under state control," said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, chairman of the House Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee.
But McNamara said legislators are already hearing from constituents in northern Minnesota who want "a serious hunt" right away. That sentiment was evident among many of the hunters who attended the DNR's annual meeting Friday, where officials for the first time laid out the bare bones of a plan.
They said they have not yet settled on a quota for how many wolves could be shot or trapped. That would be decided by the Legislature, with input from the public through open hearings, officials said. They said they would like a plan that allowed larger numbers to be hunted in areas near agricultural and livestock regions, where there have been conflicts, a strategy that in the long run could reduce clashes between wolves and people.
The state's plan also allows property owners in the northeast part of the state to kill wolves if they are an immediate threat to livestock or pets. On the more agricultural southern and western edges of the state's 35,000-square-mile wolf range, the rule is even looser: Property owners can kill any wolf that is on their land.
The number of licenses and limit on the number killed should be determined by what's best for the wolf population, Stark said. That will take time and research to determine. But in Canada and Alaska, where wolves have never been endangered, populations can survive a 20 to 30 percent annual mortality rate, he said. And, he said, the population in Minnesota has easily withstood the loss of 200 animals a year through sanctioned trapping by federal wildlife officials who target wolves that prey on livestock and pets.
Wolf conservation advocates supported the scope of the DNR's outline.
"I'm proud of Minnesota," said Nancy Gibson, co-founder of the International Wolf Center in Ely.
But the debate has just begun. The Minnesota Deer Hunters Association has already proposed a more aggressive plan that includes an annual harvest of 750 wolves, and over-the-counter license sales for a season that would coincide with deer hunting.
"Ninety-five percent of deer hunters have not seen a wolf from a deer stand," said Mark Johnson, executive director of the deer hunters' association, at a legislative hearing on Thursday. "But they would all pay for the opportunity" to shoot one if they did, he said.
The wolf, too, will have a say. No matter how many the state allows to be killed, the quota will be hard to meet because the wolf is notoriously difficult to hunt and trap.
This year Western states launched hunting seasons aimed at reducing their populations, but the results have been modest. Montana, with about 550 gray wolves, sold nearly 20,000 wolf-hunting licenses this fall at $19 each for residents and $350 for nonresidents. Only half the quota of 220 wolves was killed during a five-week season, and the state has now extended the season through February. The experience in Idaho and Wyoming was similar.
It's evidence, said wildlife officials, that regardless of what kind of hunting season Minnesota designs, the wolf is here to stay.
"It's resilient," said Landwehr.
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394