Minnesota's second-ever wolf season has closed — more than a month early — after hunters and trappers killed a total of 237 wolves, 17 more than the target harvest set by the Department of Natural Resources.
Early snow, which helped hunters and trappers locate wolves, and perhaps experience gained from last year's inaugural wolf season might have helped them hit the DNR's harvest targets more quickly than last year. The late wolf season was closed Saturday after just 29 days, compared to 41 days last year.
"I think it had to do with people getting started [hunting and trapping] sooner, and conditions maybe helped that, " said Dan Stark, DNR wolf specialist.
The late season was to run until Jan. 31, or until the 220-wolf target harvest was reached. Officials aren't concerned that the quota was exceeded by 17 wolves because they say the target goals are just that — targets and not absolute numbers.
"Overall the season was successful, " Stark said. "We set the target harvest at a conservative and sustainable level. The wolf season isn't intended to move the population up or down, just to allow a sustainable harvest."
The DNR will evaluate the results from this season, including the age and sex of the harvested wolves, and will make a new state wolf population estimate based on observations of radio-collared wolves this winter.
"We'll evaluate the population status to make a decision on next year's season," Stark said.
The wolf season is divided into an early hunting-only season, which coincides with the firearms deer season, and a late hunting and trapping season. Eighty-eight wolves were killed in the early season and 149 wolves in the late season. Trappers accounted for about 76 percent of the late-season kill.
The DNR also breaks the state into three wolf zones. The east-central wolf zone was closed Saturday after hunters had registered nine wolves; the target harvest there was 10. The northwest and northeast wolf zones were closed earlier. Hunters and trappers in the northwest killed 103 wolves; the target there was 89. And they killed 37 in the northeast, where the target had been 33 wolves.
Last year, hunters and trappers killed 413 wolves; the target harvest was 400. The DNR lowered the goal this year in response to a new population survey showing about 2,211 wolves in the state as of last winter — a 24 percent decline from 2008, but a figure that didn't include this year's surviving pups.
The DNR issued 3,300 wolf licenses this season, about half as many as in 2012.
Meanwhile, the wolf hunt remains controversial. Last spring, the state Court of Appeals threw out a lawsuit challenging the hunting season. But a lawsuit filed in federal court challenging the removal of the wolf from the federal Endangered Species list remains to be heard.
"I expect there will be a decision in 2014," said Howard Goldman, state director of the Humane Society of the United States, one of four groups that filed suit. "We argue the wolf populations in the Great Lakes region haven't recovered under the definition of the Endangered Species Act."
A bill in the Legislature last year that would have imposed a five-year moratorium on a wolf season went nowhere, but Goldman said his group will push for action again next year when the Legislature convenes Feb. 25.
"Our position remains the same: We don't believe there's sound biological or management reasons for the hunt," Goldman said. "It's simply shooting for fun."
The House Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee will hold a wolf management informational hearing on Jan. 28, where the DNR as well as opponents and supporters will present their case to legislators.
"There'll be no vote on it, but at least we'll have an opportunity to offer our views," Goldman said.