The gray wolf in Minnesota could go from endangered to hunted in just a year or two under an environmental bill that is part of the deal struck between Gov. Mark Dayton and top Republican legislators.
The bill states that once the Great Lakes wolf is taken off the federal endangered species list, which is expected later this year, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) can establish a hunting season.
It's a marked change from the state's previous wolf management plan, which called for a five-year moratorium on hunting after delisting.
Hunting advocates say it will help reduce conflicts around the increasing number of wolf attacks on livestock and dogs. At the same time, experts say the swift transition from protected species to human prey will not harm the wolf's survival if a hunting season is well-managed.
"The [wolves] have surpassed every benchmark of recovery," said Mark Johnson, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association. "It's way past time."
Still, an official with the national environmental group that has opposed the delisting said it's a bad sign that the Legislature is interfering even before the wolf is delisted.
"Can we count on the fact that a management plan will be implemented if the Legislature steps in and meddles with it?" said Noah Greenwald, director for endangered species with the Center for Biological Diversity.
In April, Congress angered environmental groups by delisting gray wolves in the western part of the country from the Endangered Species Act.
Also in April, the Department of the Interior announced plans to remove the Great Lakes wolf population from the list. That covers an estimated 3,000 animals in Minnesota, and another 1,000 or so in Wisconsin and Michigan.
Federal officials are holding public hearings in the three states this summer to discuss the plans, and how each state will manage and protect their wolf populations.
Laura Ragan, a wildlife biologist for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, said that removing the hunting moratorium is unlikely to delay or hamper the federal delisting process.
"It doesn't change anything," she said. The state "will still have to develop how they manage a harvest, if they have it, and put it through public review."
DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said that the rules around a hunting season would be formed through a public process that could take a year to 18 months.
Johnson estimated that as many as 100,000 hunters a year would buy wolf licenses in Minnesota. But because wolves are so smart and difficult to hunt, at most only about 700 wolves a year would be killed, he said.
But some say that hunting wolves can have unintended consequences on their population.
Greenwald said that when hunters kill the top male and female wolves in a pack, that reduces the survival of pups and often breaks up the group. As a result, the number of wolves that die, he said, is greater than the number killed by hunters.
A hunting season would, however, help the DNR solve a problem created by cuts in the federal budget. The federal agency that now investigates livestock killings and other wolf conflicts with people will close by the end of this year. That leaves the state with the costs of managing problem wolves, he said.
One way to solve that, said Landwehr, is to increase the number of hunting licenses in areas of the state where wolves are a problem.
"The northern part of the state has been trying to deal with severe wolf problems for a long time," Landwehr said. "This [bill] is an effort to move things along."
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394