One-half hour before dawn Saturday, wolves will again be hunted in Minnesota. Not like they were a half-century ago, with strychnine and airplane gunners, but by a smattering of deer hunters toting high hopes and high-powered ammunition into the state's north woods.

Mike Lee will be among them. Last year, some of the buddies he hunts deer with just south of Duluth saw a wolf pack run down a doe and kill it.

So he applied for a Department of Natural Resources wolf-hunting permit, and beat roughly 1-in-3 odds to win one of 3,600 permits issued by lottery for the deer season. "I was more than happy to take advantage of the opportunity," said Lee, 40, of Hugo.

But in this most divisive of hunts, which has pitted wolf protectionists nationwide against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and many of the state's sportsmen and women, Lee, like most deer hunters with wolf permits, knows it's a long shot he'll even see a wolf from his deer stand -- and a longer shot still he'll shoot one.

That's because wolves, while at times appearing ubiquitous to northern Minnesota livestock producers, remain widely dispersed over the northern third of the state -- only about five animals per 40 square miles -- and because many wolves will "disappear," experts say, and move only at night when 160,000 deer hunters decamp to the state's wolf country beginning Saturday.

"I've thought about it a lot," said DNR wolf specialist Dan Stark of Grand Rapids. "My guess is that about 70 wolves will be taken during deer season, out of a quota of 200."

The number of wolves killed during deer hunting, and the number that fall in a second season that begins Nov. 24 to another 2,400 hunters and trappers, will fuel what is likely to be an ongoing debate about how many wolves inhabit Minnesota.

The DNR uses various data, including annual scent post indices, to estimate the state's wolf population at 3,000. But the animals haven't been fully surveyed for about five years, and groups arguing against the hunt could be bolstered in their view that fewer wolves roam the state than the DNR believes if hunters and trappers fall short of their combined 400-animal harvest quota.

"The DNR talks about how many wolves there are in the state, but they don't know," said Maureen Hackett, a Twin Cities psychiatrist who founded the group Howling for Wolves, which opposes the hunt.

"If only 90 to 100 cattle were killed by wolves in the state last year, could we really have 3,000 wolves?" Hackett said. "I think the population is exaggerated. And holding this hunt without a recent baseline population of wolves is reckless. The DNR has no idea how many wolves Minnesota has, and no idea how many will be killed in this hunt. Because they don't, the hunt shouldn't be held."

The state Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear an appeal by Hackett's group and the Center for Biological Diversity of Tucson, Ariz., asking that the hunt be stopped. But the Humane Society of the United States and the Fund for Animals have notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that they intend to sue the agency in an attempt to return Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan wolves to the Endangered Species List.

The states regained wolf management from the federal government in January -- a move applauded by Julian Brzoznowski, a retired cattleman living near Orr, Minn., about an hour south of International Falls.

Unlike Hackett, Brzoznowski believes far more wolves exist in the state than the DNR says.

"I started having trouble with wolves killing my cattle in 1975, shortly after they went on the Endangered Species List," said Brzoznowski. "At the time, the DNR said Minnesota had only 400 wolves. But in the first month, the government trapped 50 of them off my place alone. That was back when they live-trapped wolves and moved them 25 miles or so away and let them go.

"The DNR was wrong about the number of wolves in the state back then, and they're way off now."

Still, Brzoznowski believes only about 40 wolves will be killed during deer season.

"Wolves aren't going to walk by deer stands," he said. "They're too smart for that."

One factor: Wolves are wily

Longtime Minnesota wolf researcher Dave Mech says too many variables exist to predict how many wolves will be killed by the 3,600 deer hunters with wolf permits.

Whatever the number proves to be, it won't necessarily be indicative of the wolf population's size, he said.

"I won't be surprised by any outcome of the hunt," Mech said. "I wouldn't even guess at the number of wolves that will be killed."

One unknown, he said, is the whereabouts of hunters with wolf permits.

The permits were issued randomly, not by specific area. So it's possible that permit holders will be too concentrated or, conversely, too spread out, to encounter many wolves.

Additionally, wolves are extraordinarily effective at detecting and avoiding people.

"The chance for random encounters between wolves and hunters isn't good," he said.

Across central and northern Minnesota, deer hunter densities vary widely, DNR data show, from about 40 per 40-square-mile area (the size of an average Minnesota wolf-pack territory) near the Boundary Waters, to as many as 600 hunters per 40 square miles near Lake Mille Lacs.

Another unknown is hunter "effort," said DNR wildlife research manager Lou Cornicelli, noting that Minnesota deer hunters average only about five days a season pursuing whitetails.

"And about 60 percent of the state's deer harvest occurs during the first three days of the season," Cornicelli said. So most wolves killed by deer hunters probably will be felled during that period.

Those that aren't, Mech said, will head for the hills.

"Wolves will sense the presence of hunters and retreat to swamps or deeper into the woods and wait there," he said.

Visions of a fur rug

In the 27 years he's hunted deer south of Duluth on the border of Namadji State Forest, Mike Lee has been fairly successful.

"We've got about 10 guys who hunt together, and we've always been able to shoot enough deer," he said.

Until last year, when the group bagged only two.

Lee blames an increased presence of wolves in the area for the lack of deer.

"About half of our group saw wolves last season while deer hunting," he said, "including the pack that ran down the doe."

Still, Lee and the three others in his group who drew wolf permits have no special wolf-hunting tactics planned while on the lookout for deer.

"If I'm lucky enough to get a deer, I'm going to field-dress it within shooting range of my stand, and maybe a wolf will come to the guts," he said. "The other guys will probably do the same. That's it. Nothing out of the ordinary.

"But if I do shoot a wolf," he added. "I will definitely have a nice rug made from its pelt."