Does the easily reached quota point to resurgence or vulnerability of once protected animal?
Betty Gaston, co-owner of Taxidermy Unlimited in Burnsville, held up the pelt of a recently killed 85-pound female wolf brought to the shop for processing. Opponents of the inaugural hunting season plan to sue to have gray wolves placed back on the federal endangered species list.
Dave Hughley was thrilled to trap a 120-pound male wolf last month east of Lake Mille Lacs -- one of more than 400 wolves killed during Minnesota's inaugural wolf season.
"The pelt is really nice -- thick and long-haired," said the 56-year-old trapper from Onamia. He plans to sell it to a fur buyer, netting at least $250. He hopes it's just the first of many wolves he traps in coming years.
Whether he has that chance might depend on what happens in coming months not in Minnesota's North Woods -- home to the state's estimated 3,000 gray wolves -- but in state and federal courtrooms.
That's where opponents intend to regain protection for Canis lupis, squaring off with state and federal wildlife biologists who will argue the taking of a fraction of the state's wolves doesn't hurt their overall population -- or even reduce it.
"We've demonstrated that you can have sensible wolf harvest and still have wolves, because this won't even make a dent in the population," said Tom Landwehr, Department of Natural Resources commissioner.
"This is a sustainable harvest,'' he said. "We will have wolves in the state forever."
Landwehr said he expects the state to hold another wolf season next fall -- and may even increase the number of wolves that can be killed.
But the season closure on Thursday didn't come soon enough for Howard Goldman.
"There's no biological reason to hunt wolves; since 1998, the population has been stable without hunting and trapping,'' said Goldman, Minnesota state director of the Humane Society of the United States.
The group is one of four that have notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service they intend to sue later this month seeking to reinstate the wolf to the federal Endangered Species List.
"Minnesotans care deeply about wolves and don't want the species hunted,'' Goldman said. "It's recreational killing."
Two other groups have filed a separate suit in state court.
Hunting here to stay?
Landwehr said he is confident the suits will fail and wolf hunting is here to stay. "They just don't think we should be killing wolves, and on that we fundamentally disagree," he said. "The wolf is a fur-bearer like a fox, coyote, bobcat and a bunch of others that we harvest annually."
It also appears unlikely the Legislature would enact laws killing the wolf hunt. A bill directing the DNR to hold the first hunt passed with bipartisan support last session.
"I don't expect any changes [to the wolf season] because it was such a great success," said Rep. David Dill, DFL-Crane Lake, who heads the key House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee and supports the wolf season.
Dill said he was surprised hunters and trappers hit target goals so quickly.
The late-season northeast wolf zone where Dill lives closed Dec. 14 after 58 wolves were harvested, two over the quota. And the east-central zone where Hughley traps closed Dec. 13 after nine wolves were taken, one under the quota. The northwest zone closed Thursday, with 191 wolves killed, four over the target.
So far, 258 wolves have been registered for the late season, and 147 were killed in the early season. The 405 total is five over the quota, but officials said that was just a general target.
"That means either wolves are really dumb, which they're not, or there's more of them than we thought there were," Dill said.
But Dan Stark, DNR wolf specialist, said it's too early to draw any conclusions. Officials still are analyzing samples taken from wolves, including teeth, which will indicate their age, and reproductive tracts, which will tell litter size.
Trappers have better chance
Stark said he wasn't surprised hunters and trappers reached the 400-wolf target set by the DNR, and noted that trappers were more successful than hunters, as expected.
"Seventy-five percent of the wolves taken during the late season have been taken by trappers,'' Stark said.
They simply have a better chance of bagging a wolf because they can leave multiple traps out in the woods over a 24-hour period, while a hunter must encounter a wolf firsthand.
John Hart, a wildlife biologist and district supervisor with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services who has been trapping wolves for years under the agency's wolf depredation program, also wasn't surprised by the results.
"Minnesota has some of the highest wolf densities in the world," he said.
In addition to the 400-plus wolves killed during the season, 272 wolves were taken in 2012 by federal and state trappers in response to livestock depredations and 16 were killed by citizens protecting livestock or pets. The total of nearly 700 wolves is about 23 percent of the estimated 3,000 wintertime population, still less than the 30 percent mortality over several years that could affect the wolf population, Stark said.
The wintertime population will nearly double next spring when wolves give birth to pups. "Only about half the pups typically survive to the first winter," Stark said. Other mortality factors, including hunting and trapping, will reduce wolf numbers.
"I don't think we'll see any decline in the wolf population at this harvest level,'' he said.
But many who oppose the wolf hunting season remain unconvinced. That 6,000 hunters and trappers hit the 400-wolf target says something different to Goldman.
"It says wolves are much easier to kill than had been speculated. Which is why they need to be protected."