I passed another wolf billboard today on the freeway. Its message clearly opposed the wolf season in Minnesota. As executive director of the Wildlife Science Center, a wolf center near Forest Lake, I am well-versed in the emotional extremes that accompany any conversation about wolves.
I served as an adviser to the wolf roundtable in the late 1990s, watching as a roomful of people with disparate values worked together to develop a management plan. The people on the roundtable had access to a panel of researchers, managers and educators who answered questions and brought science into the conversation.
From what I gather, the current argument against the hunt has three concerns: 1) disruption of wolf-pack society through the death of pack members; 2) dangerous population reduction, and 3) fears of cruelty at the hands of trappers in particular.
Science appears to have left the room. Perhaps I can bring it back to the table briefly.
Wolves in Minnesota have been extensively studied, both in captivity and in the wild. Topics from social ecology and behavior to physiology and pharmacology have been examined by scientists such as Todd Fuller, Dave Mech, Ralph Bailey and Rolf Peterson, to name a few.
One of the many aspects of wolf ecology that has been examined is the effect of fracturing on packs. Mech describes "fractured" packs as wolf packs that have lost key members to varying sources of mortality. There are many things in the woods that kill wolves besides humans -- black bears, deer, moose, other wolves, diseases and starvation. Mech analyzed the deaths of wolves due to other wolves over a 22-year period in northern Minnesota's Superior National Forest. He found that these conflicts result in reduced breeding and territorial competition by killing neighboring breeders, referred to by some as the "alpha" wolves.
Since it is the adult or breeding wolves that are the territory holders, they are the ones primarily killed by other wolves. The impact on the remaining pack members has varied, from dispersal to maintaining territory and recruiting replacement wolves. The contention that killing breeders always results in dissolution of the pack is not supported by multiple studies. Wolf pups are of adult size by winter, and have all of their adult teeth by six to seven months. Wolves as young as five months have dispersed successfully from packs and survived. There is reason to believe that should both breeders be taken during Minnesota's wolf hunt, the young of the year can survive.
I have heard from several people that we all worked so hard to recover wolves, and now we're just going to kill them all off. I cannot comment on the plans of other states, but that is clearly not the intent of Minnesota's plan.
The cap of 400 wolves to be taken is conservative by any measure. It is roughly 13 percent of the state's wolf population. Todd Fuller looked at wolf mortality in north-central Minnesota. He found that with a human-caused annual mortality rate of 29 percent, the wolf population nonetheless increased slightly. On Isle Royale, where no human-caused mortality occurs, Rolf Peterson reports that annual wolf mortality from 1971 to 1995 averaged 23.5 percent.
According to John Hart, district supervisor for U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services, the agency removes an average of 200 wolves annually in response to livestock loss, or roughly 6 percent of the population. Illegal killing of wolves has gone on throughout wolf recovery. And still the Minnesota wolf population has grown.
Many of us hope to and expect to see a decline in the illegal take of wolves, in response to its elevation to a game animal, to peer pressure and to hunting opportunities. The black bear followed the same path from disdain to reverence.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this take among its opponents is the use of traps to capture wolves. This I find easy to defend. Unbeknownst to many wolf admirers, the vast majority of wolves that are caught for radio-collaring purposes are caught by a foothold trap. When I assisted Rolf Peterson with wolf capture, the trap we used on Isle Royale to catch and radio-collar wolves looked like the one my trapper friends will be using on wolves this fall.
Traps are restraint tools, absolutely essential to researchers and managers in the wildlife field. Wolves will be caught and restrained by trappers, just as they are by researchers. Five new wolves are wearing radio collars in Voyageurs National Park this month, all caught by foothold traps and handled by professional biologists.
I suspect, however, that the real reason behind the opposition to the hunt has nothing to do with science, and is the motivation behind the string of lawsuits to stop the delisting of the wolf over the past decade-plus. Some people love wolves so much that the thought of one dying is not simply distasteful, it is abhorrent, unbearable. The wolf is no longer a predator that has recovered its population -- the wolf represents something beyond an animal to many. This adoration of the wolf as an icon has fascinated me for my whole career.
The courts say Minnesota can have its wolf season. I believe that legitimate concerns about negative impacts will be laid to rest after the analysis is done. For some, however, there can be no relief as long as wolves die by human hands. For those people, I have nothing comforting to say.
By the way, the billboard I passed has a photo of a red wolf in a research trap.
Peggy Callahan is executive director of the Wildlife Science Center in Columbus, Minn.