Wolf survey should guide Minnesota lawmakers

  • Article by: STAR TRIBUNE EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 1, 2013 - 6:41 PM

Data can inform the debate over controversial hunt.

Minnesota’s moose are dying so fast that state wildlife officials won’t allow them to be hunted this year — for all the right reasons. Now, some Minnesota lawmakers also want to hit the pause button on wolf hunting and trapping after just one season.

They’re calling for a five-year moratorium unless hunting is needed for population control, which isn’t the case now. But in our view, a lengthy moratorium makes no more sense at this juncture than last year’s sprint by lawmakers to sanction hunting as soon as gray wolves were removed from the Endangered Species List.

Here’s why: Results of a new wolf population survey from the state Department of Natural Resources are expected soon. Armed with that data, lawmakers will be better positioned to decide whether a moratorium is prudent. The last survey, completed in 2008, found that the number of wolves had remained steady at about 3,000 since 2003.

That population can be sustained with controlled hunting and trapping seasons, state wildlife biologists say, adding they’ll take action if the number drops below 1,600. More than 700 wolves were killed last year — 413 by hunters and trappers, and others by federal and state trappers or by citizens protecting livestock and pets.

The state’s decision to allow wolf hunting and trapping so quickly after the delisting spurred the Humane Society of the United States and three other groups to file a federal lawsuit last month. They want gray wolves restored to federal protection in the Western Great Lakes area, including Minnesota and Wisconsin. In Michigan, citizens are gathering signatures to force a voter referendum on wolf hunting.

As a public-policy matter, the quick green light given to wolf hunting and trapping last year appeared to minimize opportunities for citizen input, and Gov. Mark Dayton recently conceded in a meeting with the Star Tribune Editorial Board that swift approval by lawmakers likely impeded public awareness.

“In the last legislative session, I did not have a single meeting, single phone call or single request that I know of for a meeting or conversation about the wolf season,” he said, adding that this was unusual. “Citizens can’t be expected to be aware. … So suddenly now it’s real and it’s very controversial.”

Minnesota gray wolves were given federal protection in 1974 under the Endangered Species Act. They were delisted in 2007 and 2009, but those rulings were overturned after court challenges. The state’s wolf management plan had called for a five-year moratorium on hunting and trapping in the event of another delisting.

But the Legislature removed the moratorium requirement in 2011, setting the stage for a hunt immediately after the delisting in 2012. Lawmakers argued that years of court battles had delayed delisting, making the moratorium unnecessary.

The controversy continues. Native Americans object to hunting wolves on cultural and spiritual grounds. Other Minnesotans, including animal-rights activists and some hunters, question the ethics of hunting animals that were recently brought back from the brink of extinction and do not provide food.

But state and federal wildlife biologists argue that a controlled hunt can be successful. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said last year’s hunt “demonstrated that you can have sensible wolf harvest and still have wolves, because this won’t even make a dent in the population.”

DFL control of the House and Senate isn’t expected to have much impact on lawmakers’ strong support for wolf hunting and trapping. House Speaker Paul Thissen of Minneapolis and Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk of Cook count themselves among the supporters. Bakk was unequivocal about any legislative effort to stop wolf hunting when he spoke to an editorial writer. “There will be zero chance that anything changes,” he said.

That may be the case — and the right answer — but the DNR and legislators should carefully study the results of the population survey before making a decision.

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